Clean the World: Hotel soaps that care
By Andrea Sachs,
Let’s take a moment to consider the afterlife of hotel bathroom amenities.
Some soaps and toiletries are adopted by guests, transported in cosmetics bags and dopp kits to new sink countertops and shower caddies. Most, however, are hoisted by housekeeping into trash receptacles, a one-way ticket to the landfill.
But then there’s a third way, a winding journey slick with suds and good intentions.
It’s a way that came to Florida business traveler Shawn Seipler as he pondered the soap in his Minneapolis Holiday Inn room one day in 2008. Curious about the ultimate fate of the bar he’d barely used, he trotted down to the front desk to ask about its post-checkout destiny. It would be tossed, he learned. It was an answer he’d hear 30 more times during an informal poll of hotels conducted with his friend Paul Till.
The American hospitality industry is a big waster, creating nearly 200 million metric tons of solid waste per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of that heap, only 30 percent, a few shovels’ worth, is recycled.
That wet bar of soap in a Midwestern hotel led Seipler and Till to found Clean the World, another blade in the hotel industry’s growing “green” movement. (Add to the burgeoning field: liquid dispensers in the showers, smaller soaps and less-full bottles of toiletries.) The Orlando-based organization opened in 2009 with the twin goals of protecting the environment and improving sanitation in developing nations to help combat the biggest health threats to children: acute lower-respiratory infection and diarrheal disease.
Since then, the group has partnered with nearly 1,300 lodgings in North America and Puerto Rico and has handed out more than 10 million bars of soap in 45 countries, including El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Mongolia and Romania. The soap you used after, say, a romp in Disney World could wind up in the clutches of a child in Mali or a family in Haiti.
“We knew that 1 million soaps were getting thrown away every day and that there were 9,000 children dying a day,” said Seipler. “This lights the fire to try to help and save them.”
Of course, recycling hotel toiletries isn’t Clean the World’s own eco-invention. Hotels have been doling out reprocessed soaps and toiletries for years, but on a much smaller scale. A quarter-century ago, according to Pat Maher, environmental consultant to the American Hotel & Lodging Association and a former Marriott executive, properties would allow their housekeeping staff to take the items home to use or share with their neighbors. At the turn of this century, a Texas organization started distributing hotel hygiene products to Mexican communities. Grass-roots groups also collected amenities and handed them out to local homeless shelters and hospitals.
Clean the World “took a lot of the little things that were going on and stepped them up,” said Maher. A critical expansion, considering that there are 4.8 million guest rooms in the United States, each one outfitted with an array of toiletries.
Others have also joined the cause. In 2009, Derreck Kayongo, a Ugandan refugee, and his wife founded the Global Soap Project, a Georgia-based nonprofit group that recently shipped 10,000 bars of soap to the new country of South Sudan and has forged a partnership with Hilton Worldwide, a big fish in the hotel industry pond. In a smaller puddle, the Downstream Casino Resort in the tri-state area of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas created with Joplin Workshops the Hand in Hand program in 2010. The group delivers kits stocked with recycled products (source: the 222-room casino, the Hilton Garden Inn in Joplin, Mo., and the Hotel Phillips in Kansas City, Mo.) to local Catholic missions and charitable centers, including women’s and homeless shelters in tornado-torn Joplin.
To understand the cogs and wheels of this new venture, I visited Clean the World’s headquarters in December. For two days, I followed the bubble as it bounced from hotel soap dish to grinding machine to open hands.
Michael Figueroa, assistant executive housekeeper at the Peabody Orlando, kicked off the morning with a pep talk. At 8 a.m., he gathered the staff around an easel displaying the Clean the World logo and details.
“We support Haiti with our soaps,” he said to the workers, 60 percent of whom immigrated from the impoverished nation. “So remember, during the workday, please collect the soaps in your little bags.”
The women, dressed in pleated gray dresses and black aprons, dispersed to claim their laden carts.
The day before, I had joined housekeeper Celine DeRosier during her morning rounds. We started in the bathroom of Room 23109. DeRosier, a mother of four who moved to Florida from Haiti in 1985, swept the counter of used products, collecting one bottle each of shampoo, conditioner and lotion, plus two soaps, including one in the shape of the iconic Peabody duck. She tossed the toiletries into a plastic bag already two layers thick with recycled goods. Then she returned to the shower with a bottle of disinfectant and a rag.
“I am happy to help the people who have nothing,” DeRosier said as she moved into the bedroom. “Most of the time people put it in the trash, and someone can use it.”
During my stint with DeRosier, we gathered several handfuls of toiletries in rooms awaiting new guests. If the soap looked slightly used or wet, she bagged it. If the item sat in the shower or rested on the lip of the tub, she tossed it in — even full bottles of shampoo, conditioner and lotion. We left one suite empty-handed, however; the visitors had brought their own products and hadn’t dripped on or opened any of the hotel’s toiletries.
Since signing up with Clean the World in 2009, the 1,641-room hotel has contributed more than 54,000 bars of soap, enough to provide almost 11,000 children with a month’s supply, and 8,925 pounds of bottled amenities, enough for 6,347 children for an entire month. Now multiply that figure by daily deliveries of more than 100 boxes of soaps to Clean the World, and you’re swimming in suds.
Till and Seipler started their enterprise in the most unglamorous of spaces, a single-car garage in South Florida. They also had a large obstacle to overcome: figuring out how to clean the soap, a redundant concept until you look at some of the donated stuff. (One word: hair. One response: ick.) They set up a lab in a friend’s garage, improvising with Kenmore cookers, a meat grinder and soap molds.
Since moving into their current space in a marginal section of downtown Orlando, they’ve upgraded their machinery. Now, one machine grinds the used soap down to pellets that resemble broken crayons. Then, with a quick change of parts, it mixes the ground-up soap with glycerine and water, shapes the goo into a long brick, then slices it with the precision of a master chef. The finished products, honeydew green in color and smelling of spring freshness, roll down the belt. The squares unceremoniously drop into cardboard boxes, ready for shipment to faraway lands.
(For the bottled toiletries, the organization donates any samples that are at least 75 percent full to homeless shelters; the rest are baled and collected by a third party, which sends them to a recycling operation in China. Seipler said that they will eventually stop distributing the used shampoos, lotions and conditioners to shelters because of sanitation concerns. Instead, they’ll hand out bottles filled with overstocked or out-of-date liquid cleaning products.)
The Orlando facility processes more than 40,000 bars of soap a day, mainly from properties on the East Coast, such as the Peabody Orlando and the Disney clan. The center in Las Vegas covers the West Coast, including Laguna Beach, Calif., the first city to collaborate with the organization, and the Strip casinos, which deal in dirt (think of all those hands pulling the slot machine arms and nervously fiddling with the poker chips). The newest operation in Cincinnati will focus strictly on rebottling liquid amenities. Overall, the company, which weighs each incoming donation on a giant scale, has prevented 1.2 million pounds of waste from languishing in landfills.
“It’s such a classic no-brainer,” said Marshall Kelberman, the Peabody Orlando’s rooms division director. “It’s volunteer now, but I wouldn’t be offended if it was regulatory.”
Next year, the company will streamline the process even more with a 150-gallon soap sterilizer. The new piece of equipment will eliminate the labor-intensive job of scraping the soaps and dousing them in bleach solution. But the machine’s arrival is months away, which meant that I had better grab a vegetable peeler and start cleaning.
I stood at a waist-high table across from Christina Lewis, a full-time worker with a speedy hand. Lewis provided a quick tutorial, especially after noting my technique: I was missing many stray hairs that could potentially clog the machine. Together, we scraped the top layer and plucked stubborn strands with gloved hands. Lewis sang along with a radio playing in the background. I amused myself by identifying the soaps: the green leaf of Westin, the ocean blue Bliss bars from the W, the Mickey mug of Disney properties.
On most days, the staff receives a helping hand from volunteers. A white board near the vending machine lists the days of the week and the number of guest scrapers: 50 volunteers from St. James Cathedral; 15 from Orange County Public Schools; 90 for Soapy Sundays. No one was scheduled for Dec. 20, a distribution day.
The week before Christmas, the staff was prepping 5,000 bars of soap to be delivered to three downtown locations. I was assigned the Christian Service Center, which serves a daily meal for the homeless and destitute. Walking through the dining hall to a scrappy back yard, I joined the Clean the World representatives around a table covered in brown paper sacks filled with soap and other toiletries.
Throughout lunch, people would file out in singles and family groups, and we loaded them up with the hygiene kits, stuffing the bags into their duffels and pockets or tucking them under their arms as they balanced trays of food.
Jennifer Delgado stopped her stroller to stock up on the sundries. We handed a bag to her daughter, 10-month-old Jadie Ruth Santana, who quietly embraced the gift. I crammed a few more into Delgado’s pink backpack.
“It’s always convenient to have your soap and shampoo,” said the young mother, who was living at a shelter while awaiting more permanent housing. “That’s something you don’t want to go without.”
After the mission cleared out, we packed up and returned to the facility. More soaps had arrived during our absence, and more soaps needed to depart in our presence. There was no risk of the suds drying up or the bubble bursting.