Shawn Seipler and Paul Till, founders of Clean the World, weren’t looking to start a social enterprise. They were working at an e-commerce firm, traveling often, and staying in hotels several days a week. During a meeting in Minneapolis, they had a moment of question: What happens to all those soaps left in rooms?
Seipler and Till agreed to investigate: each would call 15 hotels and inquire about the leftover hotel amenities. All 30 responded with the same answer: nothing. Those little bottles and bars ended up in the garbage, bound for a landfill. They pondered how to make a working business model that would recycle that plastic and the soap inside it.
The tipping point, says Clean the World’s Matt Gomez, was when Till started reading up on health and hygiene. He found studies that showed more than 60% of deaths from hygiene-related illnesses can be prevented by regular washing with bar soap—even when the water is not clean. In fact, pneumonia and diarrhea kill more children than HIV and malaria, an estimated 3.5 million under 5 each year. Both of those illness are preventable with improvements in hygiene.
In 2009, Clean the World was born. It collects soaps and bottled goods from hotels (and charges them around 65 cents per month per room to participate) and reprocesses the soaps to be sent around the world. So far, more than 10 million bars of soap have been distributed to 48 countries, says Gomez. "That’s also 1.4 million pounds of hotel waste diverted from landfills," he adds.
Hotel workers collect and separate the soaps and bottles in special bins. They are sent to Orlando where they are sanitized. The outside of the soap bars are scraped off, and they are dipped into an eco-friendly cleaning solution. Then the soaps are ground up in what looks like a giant meat grinder to create soap pellets or noodles. From there, glycerin or fragrance can be added, and the bars are cut into uniform three-ounce squares and dried. The facility can create a maximum of 80,000 bars of recycled soap per day. Clean the World works with partners to send the soap around the world.
A recent distribution went to Honduras, where schools, and orphanages received hygiene kits. In addition, a load of soap recently went to tornado refugees in Kentucky.
And what about the bottles of lotions, shampoos, and conditioners that come fresh with every hotel room? If there is more than three-quarters of the product left in the bottle, then the outside gets sanitized and the product distributed to homeless shelters and women’s shelters, through groups like the Salvation Army, says Gomez. Plastic bottles closer to empty get bailed and compressed, and then sold as plastic recycling.
Gomez says the company has been approached by businesses who want to turn the recycled plastics into material for decks or roofs. "Maybe there will be a Habitat for Humanity house going up somewhere in the world, with a roof made out of hospitality goods," he says.
Clean the World is looking to expand beyond soaps in the future. In December, it announced it would team up with Eco Convergence Group to expand hotel sustainability. One project is to process grease, liquid sludge, and organic waste from hotels and restaurants into biofuel or energy on-site in a sustainable and socially responsible way.