The surprising afterlife of used hotel soap

Hotel guests leave behind millions of half-used bars of soap every day. A nonprofit is on a mission to repurpose them.

One of the first things many of us do when we settle into a hotel room is reach for the packaged bar of soap on the bathroom counter.

These soaps are the single most-utilized amenity at hotel chains: 86% of guests who stay at a hotel for 1-2 nights use it, handily outranking other popular offerings like the in-room TV (84%), hair dryer (36%), and valet parking (28%).

Hotels take great pride in selecting their toiletries, and invest a tremendous amount of time and money into finding the right brand partners.

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

But these tiny bars come with a big problem.

While some of us smuggle home every bar we can get our hands on (a totally acceptable move, according to hoteliers), most guests leave behind sizable, half-used hunks of soap.

At scale, this is a big deal:

  • There are  ~5m hotel rooms in the US alone.
  • Pre-pandemic, the average occupancy rate was ~66%.
  • That means that, in normal times, hotels go through ~3.3m bars of soap every day.

Every year, it has been estimated that the hospitality industry generates ~440B pounds of solid waste — much of it soap and bottled amenities. That’s the equivalent weight of 2m blue whales.

What happens to all that leftover soap?

Fourteen years ago, one man asked that very question. And the answer led him down a path that has since saved tens of thousands of lives all over the world. 

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One man, a pickle bucket, and a potato peeler

The thought first struck Shawn Seipler in 2008 while staying at a hotel in Minneapolis.

Seipler was a road dog. A technology executive, he spent 150 days per year in hotels on business trips. And one night, after a few room service cocktails, he wondered what became of unused hotel room soap.

So, he called the front desk and asked.

  • “Excuse me, what do you do with all that leftover soap?”
  • “Sir, would you like another cocktail?
  • “Absolutely… but also, what happens to all that soap?”
  • “Well, we throw it away.”
  • “Do all hotels throw it away?”
  • “Yes, sir, it all goes to a landfill.”

Seipler did some back-of-the-napkin math and realized that millions of bars of perfectly salvageable soap were going to waste.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about that,” Seipler told The Hustle. “And I decided I had to do something about it.”

A few weeks later, in his hometown of Orlando, he walked into a Holiday Inn and asked if they’d be willing to part with their unused soap. The general manager happily complied, and Seipler left with a giant bag of half-used toiletries.

“I went to 6 other hotels that same day and they all said the same thing,” recalled Seipler: “‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!’”

Armed with thousands of bars of soap, Seipler and a few friends set up a small “workshop” in a single-car garage in downtown Orlando.

The group sat on upside-down pickle buckets and scraped the outside of the soap bars off by hand with potato peelers, pulverized them in a meat grinder, melted them down in Kenmore slow cookers, poured the mixture into soap molds, dried it overnight, and cut it up into new bars.

Seipler (right) and his buddies in a garage, manually cleaning hotel soap, in 2008 (courtesy of Clean the World)

At his best, Seipler could churn out ~500 new soap bars per day.

The next question was what he was going to do with it all.

He laid out a bunch of stats and came to a realization:

  • Hotels were wasting millions of bars of soap.
  • At the time, ~9k children under the age of 5 were dying from hygiene-related illnesses every day globally.
  • Studies showed that regular hand-washing could cut those deaths in half.

Seipler launched Clean the World and set out on a mission of getting those millions of bars of wasted soap to children in need.

To do that, the first thing he’d have to do is scale his operation. But getting monetary support for a real facility proved to be difficult.

“I put together a grant application for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, imagining that Bill would walk up our driveway and hand us a check for $1m,” said Seipler. “We got a rejection notice within 8 hours of submission, with a note that said, ‘Please do not reapply for 3 years.’”

Donated hotel soap was piling up. The economy was in a bad spot. And if Seipler didn’t figure out a solution, the whole idea would die.

Shawn Seipler (photo via i4 Business Magazine; illustration: The Hustle)

So, Seipler came up with an annuity model:

  1. Hotels pay a small fee ($0.50 to $1 per room, per month) to participate in a soap recycling program.
  2. They’re provided with everything they need to streamline donations and get rid of their waste: storage bins, shipping, staff training.
  3. They also get impact reports detailing the social and environmental impact of their donations.

For hotels, this serves 2 purposes: 1) It was a relatively affordable way to get rid of all their waste, and 2) it helped them meet sustainability goals.

How the hotel soap recycling process works

Today, Clean the World partners with more than 8k hotels — roughly 1.4m rooms in total — around the world. 

Its clients include major chains like Hyatt, Marriott, InterContinental, Walt Disney Resorts, and Hilton, in addition to cruise ship lines, casinos, and airlines.

Since 2009, the company has:

  • Collected 13m pounds of discarded soap from hotels
  • Distributed 68m bars of reprocessed soap to 127 countries
  • Diverted 23m pounds of plastic and soap waste from landfills

Its biggest partner, Hilton, which signed on all of its worldwide locations in 2019, has contributed 14.5m bars of soap in less than 3 years. 

To recycle all of this soap, Clean the World has a $750k production facility in Orlando, and satellite facilities in Las Vegas, Hong Kong, the Dominican Republic, Montreal, and Amsterdam.

“It’s a much more professional operation now,” said Seipler. “No more potato peelers or meat grinders.”

The process to convert hotel soap into new bars works like so:

  1. Clean the World provides a participating hotel with storage bins; when full, they’re shipped to a Clean the World facility 
  2. Soap goes into a giant refining machine, which filters out hair, dirt, and other debris, and churns out “soap noodles”
  3. Soap goes into a mixer and is sterilized with diluted bleach
  4. Soap goes into a duplex plodder, where it’s pummeled into a powdery substance and compressed into long solid blocks
  5. Soap is cut into bars, stamped, and packed into boxes
  6. Soap is sent to countries in need

Hotels all use different types of soap, and there’s a whole science to mixing the right bars together. Holiday Inn Macau’s oatmeal bars, for instance, pair well with Aloft Taipei’s Bliss bars. Clean the World relies on 20k+ volunteers to determine the right sorting process.

The soap recycling process (photos via Clean the World)

Every donated bin is weighed so Clean the World can give hotels detailed impact reports chronicling things like:

  • The number of new bars contributed
  • The total pounds of landfill waste diverted
  • Carbon footprint reduction (in kg of CO2)
  • The number of refugees the soap directly impacted
  • Water and energy use reduction

Once the soap is repurposed and ready for its second life, Clean the World works with humanitarian partners like UNICEF, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, World Vision, and Children International to determine where it’s most needed around the world.

With these partners, they’re able to work with local clinics and schools, where they teach kids hygiene protocols and monitor effectiveness.

The organization played a big role in providing soap to Syrian and Somalian refugees, and Haitian residents in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

Millions of bars of soap have been sent to help refugees and others without access to basic hygiene products (via Clean the World)

By volume, the largest amount of soap has gone to countries like the Philippines, Zambia, and Honduras.

But in recent times, another country has been added to the list: the US.

A pandemic pivot

In 2020, Clean the World faced a frustrating problem:

  1. Supply was crimped by massive hotel closures
  2. Demand for soap in the US was at an all-time high

“We were nearly on the brink of extinction at a time when people needed soap more than ever,” Christina Flores, Clean the World’s marketing director, told The Hustle. “We had to let 80% of our staff go.”

When hotels began to slowly open back up, many big chains — including Marriott and IHG (the parent company of Holiday Inn) — also pivoted from packaged soaps to big refillable dispensers.

Facing a diminished supply, Clean the World launched a new arm that provides at-home kits consumers can fill up with unused soap and other toiletries at home.

To date, the organization has distributed 5m+ of these kits to US homeless shelters and other countries facing sanitation supply chain shortages.

These initiatives have had a considerable global impact.

As the largest hotel soap recycler in the world, Clean the World has helped lead to a 60%+ reduction in the number of children who die from diarrheal diseases each year.

One 3-ounce bar of soap is good for 100 hand-washings — enough to significantly cut down the risk of contracting such illnesses.

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

A big problem still looms: worldwide, an estimated 3B people still don’t have access to hand-washing facilities with soap. And thousands of hotels still throw away their soap waste.

Luckily, Clean the World isn’t the only organization working on solving this problem:

  • EcoSoap partners with 1k+ hotels and has provided 250k+ pounds of soap to children in 10 countries
  • Diversey, a leading provider of hotel hygiene products, has repurposed 25m bars of soap since 2013

Thanks to these efforts, hotel toiletries that otherwise would’ve ended up in landfills have been given a second use case.

Seipler has seen mothers cry with joy when they’re given soap. The small, commonplace things we often take for granted, he said, can make a world of difference when reallocated.

“I know it sounds funny,” he said, “but that little bar of soap on the counter in your hotel room — that thing can literally save a life.”

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