Just add soap

G Magazine

A couple of innovative friends in the U.S are saving lives around the world by recycling leftover soap from hotels.


Shaun Seipler and Paul Till.


Women in Lesotho who have received soap from Clean the World.

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Each year the U.S. hotel industry dumps more than 600 tonnes of bottle and bar soap to landfill, while children in the world’s poorest countries die of illnesses that could be prevented with access to soap. Florida’s Shawn Seipler and Paul Till have their sights set on a solution.

In 2009 Seipler was vice president of sales and marketing for a global e-commerce company. While he was on the road, staying in hotels for three or four nights a week, he started wondering what happened to the partly used bars of soap and little bottles of shampoo. He and good friend Till rang 30 hotels to ask the question. All said they threw them away.

“We did the math; 4.6 million hotel rooms in the U.S. meant one million bars of soap were going to landfill every day,” says Seipler. “Paul researched the internet for uses of recycled soap and discovered that diarrhoeal disease and pneumonia were the leading causes of death among children in developing countries, with 9,000 deaths every single day; 3.5 million children per year. Medical studies claimed handwashing with bar soap could reduce this death rate by 60 per cent. This was the light bulb moment for our Clean the World operation.”

The pair engaged the services of a laboratory to inject bars of soap with pathogens before putting them through a steaming process. The results revealed 100 per cent purity. Seipler and Till left lucrative careers, set themselves up in a single-car garage and began contacting hotels to offer a free steam recycling program for six months.

“We funded the transport, the training and all the recycling but quickly discovered it was financially unsustainable, so we sought funding to operate as a non-profit organisation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supported diarrhoeal diseases, so we spent six weeks on our grant application. Within six hours of lodging our submission it was declined with a footnote saying, ‘Please don’t reapply for three years’.”

Sustainability and social responsibility were the two buzzwords in corporate America at the time, so the pair started getting hotels to pay for the program from the outset.

“We knew how to market so we loaded the recycling program up with additional value,” explains Seipler. “Hotels could tout their environmental and social responsibility to guests and corporations via media, their websites and promotions. Our price point of 65 cents per room per month equated to two cents per night.”

Success didn’t come easily for Clean the World, but the program received global exposure after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010. The organisation was already distributing to Haiti and it became an essential part of the first response recovery mission. When television channel CBS ran a story on Seipler and Till’s organisation and their contribution to the earthquake relief, hotels started signing up en masse.

“Today we have over 1,300 hotel partners across all 50 states and 10 Canadian provinces recycling soap through our four facilities in North America. We have distributed more than 10 million bars of soap to 45 different countries.”

Essential to the program are World Vision, Children International, Harvest Time International, Stop Hunger Now and Food for the Poor, which distributed soap to victims of the massive floods in Pakistan and the Philippines, and Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Seipler and Till say their work has only just begun. “Currently we only recycle seven per cent of hotel rooms in the U.S. That means there’s 93 per cent to go. We are in the process of moving to a fully automated soap cleaning process, which will allow us to go global. Over the next 12 to 18 months we’re planning two facilities in Europe, two in Asia, one in Australia and one in Brazil.”

For more information on Clean the World, visit www.cleantheworld.org