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How recycling hotel soap can save lives

  • April 22, 2020

What happens to old hotel soap? One young social entrepreneur created a humanitarian and environmental nonprofit that saves, sanitizes and supplies recycled hotel soap for the developing world.

When empowered young people and smart sustainability initiatives come together, some powerful stuff can happen. If you find yourself frustrated these days by inept politicians and glacially slow environmental policies, like I often do, it’s inspiring to read about someone who saw a problem, figured out a solution, and created their own version of a circular economy that benefits everyone who participates.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Samir Lakhani, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Eco-Soap Bank. Since 2014, this social entrepreneur has employed more than 150 economically disadvantaged women in ten developing countries to recycle leftover hotel soap. These women sanitize the soaps, remold or liquify it, and distribute the new product to people in need.

Founder Samir Lakhani with Eco-Soap workers© Eco-Soap Bank – Samir Lakhani (third from left) with fellow Eco-Soap workers

Lakhani’s passion for social welfare began when he was a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh studying environmental science. Required to fulfill an internship, he traveled to Cambodia to study the effects of climate change on communities that had lived off the land for centuries. “I chose Cambodia because it’s one of the most rural countries in the world — and these communities often look the same way they did 1,000 years ago,” Lakhani noted.

While working on aquaculture and nutrition programs in Cambodia, he saw something he will never forget: a village woman bathing her newborn son with laundry detergent. “It was a harsh and toxic alternative to bar soap that should never be applied to the skin,” Lakhani recalled. “The baby was crying. I didn’t know what I could do, but as I returned to my hotel room and stepped into the bathroom, I realized that my housekeeper had thrown away a bar of soap I had barely even touched.”

That brief experience was a turning point for him. “It was in that lightning bolt moment, I knew what I could do for that village woman and for countless others like her.”

Children being given Eco-Soap bank soap in Cambodia.© Eco-Soap Bank – soap recently given to children in Cambodia

It’s estimated that 2-5 millions bars of soap are thrown away every single day. “We should not live in a world where more than 2 million children die per year because of diarrheal diseases that could easily be stopped by the simple act of handwashing! We can do something about this — and it’s my life’s work to redirect as much hotel soap to those who need it in this world,” Lakhani adamantly stated.

His work has three objectives: to provide a cost-effective hygiene product (soap), to reduce waste generated by the hotel industry, and to provide jobs and education for disadvantaged women. Eco-Soap Bank is able to combine all these objectives into one sustainable business model. Here’s how it works: the nonprofit collects gently used hotel soaps, the bars are sanitized and processed into new soap, and then these new soaps are donated to hospitals, clinics, schools, orphanages, and village communities. More than 150 local women have been hired and trained as soap recyclers, which in turn gives them steady employment in regions where jobs and pay are scarce.

Women and children pose with new donated soap in Cambodia© Eco-Soap Bank

The recent coronavirus epidemic could have seriously upset the hotel model, but Lakhani and his team were able to quickly adapt. Before the pandemic, Lakhani was traveling 60-80% of the time, visiting Eco-Soap’s operations, with a hyper-focus on three regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia. But the pandemic has changed how their recycling model previously worked. “Hotel occupancy has dropped and hotels are closing by the day,” he says. “So now we have started mobilizing soap scraps from manufacturers.” Lakhani is now reaching out to soap manufacturers from all over the world, asking for scraps, a natural byproduct from the manufacturing line. He said on average, 10% of all bar soap is wasted before it even hits stores’ shelves. “We have recycled and redistributed 1.5 million bars of soap in the last two months to seven countries, and this is all female-powered, because that’s our mission.”

How does all this soap get to where it needs to be during the pandemic? “A lot of logistic providers have also stepped up to address the need,” says Lakhani. “Everything is still ongoing, it’s just that the hotel piece to this puzzle is on hold.”

Healthcare workers wear masks outside a facility with donated soap in Cambodia during pandemic© Eco-Soap Bank

Access to soap and water has perhaps never been so important as it is right now. Lakhani says there are two data points that keep him up at night: “I just learned that Sierra Leone is home to 8 million people — there is only one ventilator,” he soberly notes. Lakhani stressed that with public health so inadequate in the countries he’s working in, rigorous and constant messaging about handwashing is crucial. “In Liberia, just next door to Sierra Leone, only 1.2% of households have soap for handwashing. This is all to say that Covid-19, should it [continue to] spread, will be extraordinarily lethal in the developing world.”

Though this kind of bleak news is difficult to process, Lakhani is also able to find the good: “We are driving this change by empowering women across the world. We think that they can be the ones to herald and usher in this change that we’ve been seeing.” He says he stays positive by feeling empowered, rather than hopeless. “We feel very lucky to be in a position where we can save lives,” he says. “Every single bar of soap that our people recycle has the potential to tangibly save lives. We’ve kicked it into high-gear here, because It’s important to understand that this is not necessarily a sprint, but it has become our fundamental strategy going forward.”

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