Getting the world clean, one recycled bar of soap at a time
By Victoria M. Walker
When hotel or motel guests check into their rooms, they expect at the very least to be greeted with a clean space, a made-up bed and in the bathroom, soap.
But what happens when you leave that soap behind?
They typically end up in the trash, said Shawn Seipler, the founder of Clean the World, a nonprofit founded in 2009 that recycles bar soap from over 8,000 hospitality partners, including Marriott International and Walt Disney Resorts, for those in need. By collecting, melting, reforming and packaging partially used soap left behind by hotel guests, the nonprofit has distributed nearly 70 million bars of soap in more than 120 countries, including Romania, where many Ukrainian refugees have arrived.
Clean the World currently focuses on repurposing bar soap in seven warehouses worldwide. Companies can enroll in the program online and receive boxes to collect discarded products at their properties. Full boxes are shipped to the nonprofit’s warehouses.
The organization now has approximately 60 employees, but its beginning was far more humble, with Seipler and a small group of family and acquaintances scraping used soap by hand with potato peelers in a garage in Orlando.
“The first time that the police came by the garage, they wanted to see what all of us Puerto Ricans were cooking. So I gave them a tour,” Seipler said during a video interview.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Before starting Clean the World, you traveled a lot as a sales executive. How did your job lead you to the nonprofit?
A: I was traveling — New York on Monday, Chicago on Tuesday, St. Louis on Wednesday, Los Angeles, Thursday and back — and two clients that I personally managed were Target and Best Buy, both headquartered in Minneapolis. I was in Minneapolis in a hotel room when I came up with the concept of Clean the World.
In Minneapolis, my alcohol consumption had to be increased to stay warm. So it was one of those nights that I’m like, “What happens to the soap?” and called the front desk to ask. And they said it was thrown away — they actually told me to have another cocktail.
I was doing very well, but had an itch of wanting to do something on my own and thinking about sustainability and green technology as an entrepreneur. And that led to me ask, “What happens to the soap?” I was looking for items that could be recycled.
Q: The company started in your cousin’s single-car garage — tell me what those early days were like.
A: I’m an original born-and-raised South Floridian, and we were collecting soap from hotels around the Orlando airport area in my cousin’s garage. We’d all sit around on upside-down pickle buckets with potato peelers, and we would scrape the outside of the bars of soap to surface clean it.
My other cousin was on the meat grinder, and he would grind it down. And then we had these Kenmore cookers, and you would cook the soap. All the impurities would bubble up, and you’d wipe those off, and it would turn into this paste.
Then we made big wood soap molds, and the paste would dry the next day. We’d wire-cut the bars, take them out and put them on racks.
We had to have music on — salsa and merengue. Of course, we couldn’t get the power right when the meat grinder was on, so the power would cut out every 30 minutes.
Q: How did Clean the World become the operation it is today?
A: We launched in the garage February 2009.
We were distributing just to local charities in Orlando, and then we had an opportunity to go to Haiti in July of 2009. We take 2,000 bars of soap and go into a church that has 10,000 people in it. I remember just saying, “We’re gonna come back. We’re gonna bring more soap. I promise.”
When we did that trip, our local Fox affiliate went with us and documented our work. When it ran in New York, it just so happened that Katie Couric was doing CBS Evening News and a senior producer called us in late August or September 2009 and said, “We want to do a piece on you.”
That’s what forced us out of the garage and into a warehouse of a friend of ours. He gave us a little corner spot where we set up our operations.
We were there from September 2009, and we started to get a lot of hotels contacting us from outside Orlando, so that’s when we started setting up a shipping process to get hotel bins shipped to us. About three months later, the Haiti earthquake hits. We had started to move into our first facility, a 3,000-square-foot facility in Orlando, and the Haiti earthquake helped drive us into more advanced machines because the demand really took off for our program.
Q: Tell me about the process of cleaning and reusing the soap.
A: We have the same type of machines that a soap manufacturer uses. When we get the soap, the first thing we do is run it through what’s called a plotter, and the end of it has a very fine filter that’s pushing all the soap through. And when the soap is coming out, the filter is catching the hair, paper and all the surface stuff.
That heat and action disinfect the soap, while the guys and gals in our facility, who we call the soap whisperers, have to feel the batch itself to know if it has the right moisture level so that when it goes into manufacturing, it’s not crumbling or it’s not too wet.
We send our soap on a regular basis to a third-party lab that does testing on it to ensure that it’s all coming through clean.
Q: What should travelers think about when they use soap in their hotel rooms?
A: If you’re staying at a hotel that does not use our program, take the soap home with you, keep it out of a landfill, use it in your homes. Unwrapped soap can be donated to a local homeless shelter or a local charity that you support. We’d much rather get a better life for it.