The NGO Recycling Hotel Soap To Save Lives

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Clean The World distributes soap to poor communities.

​Diarrheal diseases kill approximately 1.8 million people per year, predominantly children under 5 years old in Africa and South Asia. The tragedy is that these deaths are easily preventable – through simple hand-washing with soap.

In the late 2000s Shawn Seipler was working for an e-commerce technology company and traveling several days a week. He was shocked to learn that the barely used bars of soap he left behind in his hotel room each morning ended up in a landfill. So he hit upon the simple idea for soap recycling — to redistribute discarded hotel soap to impoverished or disaster areas. He decided to quit his job and set up a social enterprise, Clean The World.

“It is hard to believe that something as simple as soap recycling didn’t exist before 2009,” says Sam Stephens, chief executive of the Clean The World Foundation, in a recent interview with crowd-funding platform SparkRaise in Hong Kong. “The leading causes of death for children globally, even today, are hygiene-related illnesses. These diseases claim the lives of 6,000 kids under the age of five every day; that’s more than malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis combined. The most effective way to prevent those deaths is not a vaccine, but just a bar of soap.”

Stephens pointed out that the equation was obvious — on the one hand there are literally millions of bars of soap that have been used once or twice from hotel rooms around the world, being thrown away every day. And on the other, millions of kids who are on the verge of dying because they don’t have soap. From the juxtapositioning of these two ideas came Clean The World.

The formula is simple. Hotels, including branches of The Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Intercontinental, W, Aloft, Fullerton, Holiday Inn, and more, pay a nominal fee per room per month for Clean The World to collect used soap and toiletries. These get transported to a recycling centre, sorted, melted down and recycled into brand-new bars of soap. “We’re proud to say that the bars of soap we produce today are of the same calibre as any bar of soap you can purchase,” says Stephens.

“We made the decision to create new bars of soap, rather than just cleaning the bars and redistributing them,” says Gyneth Tan, managing director of Clean The World Asia. “This is because we want to give our beneficiaries a new bar of soap, with dignity, rather than just a bar of second-hand soap used by a stranger.” The 3.5oz bars are beautifully packaged and highly desirable — hotels such as Mandarin Oriental or Four Seasons use luxury scented toiletries from L’Occitane and Diptyque, and the recycled bars look as good as new.

This year Clean The World will produce around 10 million bars of soap. Whenever there is a disaster such as a tsunami or earthquake, people are cut off from hygiene supplies, which can exacerbate the aftermath of a disaster. “We deploy our soaps to crisis zones within 24 to 48 hours of the disaster,” says Stephens. Clean the World Asia arrived in Nepal less than 48 hours after the earthquake in 2015, and within 24 hours of Hurricane Matthew last year, where half-a-million bars of soap were distributed to Haiti, the Bahamas, and the East Coast of the US. A lot of what we do is in partnership with other NGOs — we provide the supplies and guidance, and they implement the planning,” he adds.

As well as disaster zones, Clean The World has a number of hygiene education initiatives in communities around the world, where people are dying because they simply don’t realise they need to wash their hands.

“We don’t drop off the item and leave, but we aim to create an impact that has a lifespan of its own long after our interaction with that community is over,” says Stephens.

“In doing so, we see a great reduction in hygiene-related illness. Part of what we do is just behavior change, getting them to use the product they already have, and if they have no access to soap then we help set up local social enterprises for people to make soap and sell it in the community. After the first year or two they can sustain themselves.”

In the eight years since setting up, Clean The World has distributed over 45 million bars of soap in 118 countries. Within the last decade, the number of children dying from diarrhoea has fallen by a third.

With more access to hygiene and preventative education, the statistics will only improve.

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