When hotel or motel guests check into their rooms, they expect at the very least to be greeted with a clean room, a made bed, and soap in the bathroom.
But what happens when you leave that soap behind?
They usually end up in the trash, says Shawn Siepler, the founder of Clean the World, a nonprofit founded in 2009 that recycles soap from more than 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 by hotel guests, the nonprofit has distributed nearly 70 million bars. soap in more than 120 countries, including Romania, where many Ukrainian refugees have arrived.
Clean the World currently focuses on reusing soap in seven warehouses worldwide. Businesses can register online for the program and receive boxes to collect end-of-life products from their properties. Full boxes are shipped to the nonprofit’s warehouses.
The organization now has about 60 employees, but its beginnings were much more humble, with Mr. Siepler and a small group of family and acquaintances scraping used soap by hand with potato peelers in an Orlando garage.
“The first time the police came by the garage, they wanted to see what we Puerto Ricans were cooking. So I gave them a tour,” Mr Siepler said during a video interview.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Before you started Clean the World, you traveled a lot as a sales executive. How did your job lead you to the nonprofit?
I was traveling — New York on Monday, Chicago on Tuesday, St. Louis on Wednesday, Los Angeles, Thursday, and back — and two clients I personally managed were Target and Best Buy, both headquartered in Minneapolis. I was in a hotel room in Minneapolis when I came up with the concept of Clean the World.
In Minneapolis, my alcohol intake had to be increased to keep warm. So it was one of those nights where I thought, “What’s going on with the soap?” and called the front desk to ask. And they said it was thrown away – they even told me to have another cocktail.
I did very well, but I was itching to want to do something as an entrepreneur and think about sustainability and green technology. And that led to me asking, “What happens to the soap?” I was looking for items that could be recycled.
The business started in your cousin’s one-car garage — tell me what those early days were like.
I am a South Florida native and we were collecting soap from hotels around the Orlando airport in my cousin’s garage. We all sat on inverted pickle buckets with potato peelers, scraping the outside of the soap bars to clean the surface.
My other cousin was on the meat grinder and he was grinding it fine. And then we’d have these Kenmore stoves, and you’d boil the soap. Any impurities would bubble up, and you would wipe it off, and it would turn into this paste.
Then we made large wooden soap molds, and the paste would dry the next day. We cut the bars, took 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 with the meat grinder on so the power went out every 30 minutes.
How did Clean the World become the operation it is today?
We launched in the garage in February 2009.
We distributed only to local charities in Orlando, and then we had the opportunity to go to Haiti in July 2009. We take 2,000 bars of soap and enter a church with 10,000 people. I remember I just said, ‘We’ll be back. We’re going to bring more soap. I promise.”
When we did that trip, our local Fox affiliate went with us and documented our work. While it was running 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 about you.”
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That’s what forced us out of the garage and into a warehouse of a friend of ours. He gave us a corner where we set up our operations.
We were there from September 2009 and we started contacting many hotels from outside Orlando, so then we started setting up a shipping process to have hotel trays shipped to us. About three months later, the earthquake hits Haiti. We had started moving into our first facility, a 3,000-square-foot facility in Orlando, and the Haiti earthquake propelled us toward more advanced machines as demand for our program really increased.
Tell me about the process of cleaning and reusing the soap.
We have the same kind 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 really fine filter that pushes all the soap through it. And when the soap comes out, the filter catches the hair, paper and all surface material.
That heat and action disinfects the soap, while the guys and gals in our factory, who we call the soap whisperers, have to feel the batch themselves to know if it has the right moisture content so that it doesn’t crumble when it goes into production or it is. not too wet.
We regularly send our soap to a third-party lab that runs tests to make sure everything comes through clean.
What should travelers keep in mind when using soap in their hotel rooms?
If you are staying in a hotel that does not use our program, please take the soap home, store it in a landfill and use it at home. Unwrapped soap, can be donated to a local homeless shelter or a local charity you support. We’d rather get a better life for it.