How nonprofit Clean The World is recycling hotel soap for those in need
When hotel or motel guests check into their rooms, they expect at the very least to be greeted with a clean space, a made bed, and soap in the bathroom.
But what happens when you leave that soap behind?
They usually end up in the trash, said Shawn Seipler, the founder of clean up the world, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 that recycles bar soap from more than 8,000 hotel partners, including Marriott International, for those in need. By collecting, melting, reforming and packaging partially used soap left behind by hotel guests, the association has distributed nearly 70 million bars of soap in more than 120 countries, including Romania, where many Ukrainian refugees have arrived.
Clean the World is currently focusing on reusing bar soaps in seven warehouses around the world. Companies can to register in the online program and receive boxes to recover the products thrown in their properties. The full boxes are sent to the association’s warehouses.
The organization now has around 60 employees, but its beginnings were much more humble, with Mr Seipler and a small group of family and acquaintances scraping used soap by hand with potato peelers in a garage in Orlando.
“The first time the police came to the garage, they wanted to see what we Puerto Ricans were cooking. So I showed them around,” Mr. Seipler said in a video interview.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Before creating Clean the World, you traveled a lot as a sales manager. How did your work lead you to the association?
I was traveling — New York Monday, Chicago Tuesday, St. Louis Wednesday, Los Angeles Thursday and back — and two clients I personally handled were Target and Best Buy, both based in Minneapolis. I was in Minneapolis in a hotel room when I came up with the concept of Clean the World.
In Minneapolis, my alcohol intake had to be increased to stay warm. So it was one of those nights where I was like, “What’s happening to the soap?” and called the front desk to ask. And they said it was thrown away – they actually told me to have another cocktail.
I was doing great, but I felt like doing something on my own and thinking about sustainability and green tech as an entrepreneur. And that led me to ask, “What happens to the soap?” I was looking for recyclable objects.
The business started in your cousin’s one-car garage. Tell me what those beginnings were like.
I’m from South Florida, born and raised, and we collect soap from Orlando airport area hotels in my cousin’s garage. We were all sitting on buckets of upside-down pickles with potato peelers, scraping the outside of the bars of soap to clean the surface.
My other cousin was on the meat grinder, and he was grinding it. And then we had these Kenmore stoves, and you were cooking the soap. All the impurities bubbled up, and you wiped them away, and it turned into this paste.
Then we would make big wooden soap molds, and the paste would dry the next day. We would cut the bars to the wire, take them out and put them on shelves.
We had to have music – salsa and merengue. Of course, we couldn’t get the correct current when the meat grinder was on, so the power cut out every 30 minutes.
How did Clean the World become the operation it is today?
We launched in the garage February 2009.
We were distributing only to local charities in Orlando, and then we had the opportunity to go to Haiti in July 2009. We take 2,000 bars of soap and walk into a church that has 10,000 people. I just remember saying, “We’re going to come back. We’ll bring more soap. I promise.”
When we took this trip, our local Fox affiliate accompanied us and documented our work. When it aired in New York, Katie Couric happened to be doing CBS Evening News and a senior producer called us in late August or September 2009 and said, “We want to do a feature on you.”
This is what forced us out of the garage and into the warehouse of a friend of ours. He gave us a little street corner where we set up our operations.
We had been there since September 2009, and we started getting a lot of hotels contacting us from outside of Orlando, that’s when we started setting up a shipping process to have the hotel bins shipped to us. About three months later, the Haiti earthquake hits. We had started moving into our first facility, a 3,000 square foot facility in Orlando, and the earthquake in Haiti pushed us to more advanced machinery as demand really took off for our program.
Tell me about the process of cleaning and reusing soap.
We have the same type of machines that a soap maker uses. When we get the soap, the first thing we do is run it through what’s called a tracer, and the end of that has a very fine filter that pushes all the soap through. And when the soap comes out, the filter catches hair, paper and all surface stuff.
This heat and action sanitizes the soap, while the guys and gals at our facility, who we call soap whisperers, have to smell the batch itself to know if it has the right level of moisture so that when ‘it goes into production, it does not crumble. or it’s not too humid.
We regularly send our soap to a third-party lab that performs tests to make sure everything is clean.
What should travelers think about when using soap in their hotel room?
If you’re staying at a hotel that doesn’t use our program, take the soap home, keep it out of a landfill, use it in your homes. Unwrapped soap, can be donated to a local homeless shelter or a local charity you support. We would much rather have a better life for it.