The surprising afterlife of used hotel soap is not something many people would spend their time thinking about but the results of one person doing just that are amazing. Hotel guests leave behind millions of half-used bars of soap every day. It’s pretty obvious if you think about it but, for most of us, the thought has probably never crossed our minds.
These small packs of soap are the single most-utilized amenity at hotel chains, worldwide: 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%).
- There are approximately 5 million hotel rooms in the U.S. alone.
- Pre-pandemic, the average occupancy rate was approximately 66%.
- That means that, in normal times, U.S. hotels go through 3.3 million small bars of soap every day
- Every year, it has been estimated that the hospitality industry generates approximately 440 billion pounds of solid waste — much of it used hotel soap and other bottled amenities. That’s the equivalent weight of 2 million 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. The thought first struck Shawn Seipler, while he was staying at a hotel in Minneapolis in 2008. Seipler was technology executive, and he spent 150 days per year in hotels on business trips. One night, after a few room service cocktails, probably more than a few, he wondered what became of used hotel 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 used hotel soap were going to waste. “I couldn’t stop thinking about that, and I decided I had to do something about it,” Seipler reflected later.
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 used hotel 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 moulds, dried it overnight, and cut it up into new bars.
The next question was what he was going to do with it all? He came to a realization:
- Hotels were wasting millions of pounds of used hotel soap.
- At the time, approximately 9,000 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.
Fast forward to today.
To recycle all of this soap, Clean the World has a $750,000 production facility in Orlando, and satellite facilities in Las Vegas, Hong Kong, the Dominican Republic, Montreal, and Amsterdam. Once the used hotel 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.
These initiatives have had a considerable global impact. As the largest used 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.
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 can literally save a life.”