Your Used Bar of Hotel Soap Has a Surprising Afterlife

Shawn Seipler Clean the World
Matt Meltzer/Thrillist
Matt Meltzer/Thrillist

In the world's outcry over waste -- paper, plastics, fumes, foods -- your hotel soap ain't exactly a crisis. Still, everyone has wondered at least once: Where do all those once-used bars go? Not to the next guest, for sure. Heck, to be a five diamond property, a hotel’s staff must replace your soap daily, even if it wasn't touched. That amounts to a lot of fine-smelling garbage: Travelers and hotels combine to toss out roughly a million bars a day in the US and perhaps 5 million bars a day worldwide.

But it’s not all waste. If you’re staying at certain hotels, your hair-streaked, Italian-milled body bar might be going toward fighting diseases around the world. An Orlando-based company called Clean the World has taken to collecting used hotel soap, melting it down, and making new soap to send to impoverished countries. They're saving landfill space locally, and perhaps saving lives globally.

Hotel soap
Matt Meltzer/Thrillist

Who thinks that much about soap?

Shawn Seipler, that’s who. In a previous life, Seipler worked for a tech company and found himself on the road nearly five months out of the year. One night he was looking at a bar of soap he’d used once, and pondered its fate.

“I called down to the front desk and asked what they did with all the leftover soap,” he says. The reply: It got tossed. The more Seipler looked into the situation, the more appalled he was at the scale of the waste in America. "That," he says, "is when I learned about rebatching.”

Rebatching is a process that converts old soap into fresh soap: melting it down, reforming it, and turning it back out good as new. Once he learned soap could be recycled, Seipler began to research its uses. He found that, worldwide, thousands of children die every day from ailments such as pneumonia and diarrhea, both of which the World Health Organization finds are largely preventable with proper hygiene.

“Then it was just a matter of figuring out how to get the soap to recycle, and getting into their hands,” he said. “It was an aha moment, and I realized this was my calling. I called my Puerto Rican relatives and they said ‘let’s do it.' Pretty soon we were sitting in my garage on pickle buckets with vegetable peelers, cooking soap.” After explaining the process to understandably concerned police who stopped by during the first cook session, Seipler got his company up and running.

Sorting hotel soap
Matt Meltzer/Thrillist

How does it all work?

The process is simpler than you’d think. Hotels that partner with Clean the World pay the company 50 cents per room per month to have soaps recycled. CTW provides bins, pickup, delivery, shipping, and training to the housekeeping staff. The staff separates out the soap and puts the bars in a bin. CTW then trucks the bins to one of the company’s processing plants.

The first and largest plant is in Orlando; others are in Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Montreal and India. The bins arrive in the giant, fragrant warehouses. There the hotel soaps meet reject soaps from cosmetics bigwigs like Unilever. Workers then melt down the soap, reform it, and pack the new bars into boxes that they send to NGOs and charities like the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

Clean the World also works with hotels to recycle those partially used shampoo, conditioner, and body wash bottles. At the warehouse, the bottles are examined -- usually by one of 20,000 CTW volunteers -- to see if they’re over three-quarters full. If so, the bottles are cleaned and included in hygiene kits along with toothbrushes, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, and other items, then sent to homeless shelters around the world. Empty bottles get recycled.

Repeated enough times, over enough of your hotel stays, the numbers get pretty staggering. Last year Clean the World sent out 400,000 hygiene kits and made more than 7 million bars of soap, including half a million bars for Haiti and the Bahamas after Hurricane Matthew.

The company's move to recycle soap seven years ago has tracked with a worldwide decline in the number of child deaths. Still, something like 16,000 children under the age of 5 die every day, a quarter of whom are succumbing to pneumonia and diarrhea.

“That’s still about one every 15 seconds,” Seipler point out. “So we still have a lot of work to do.”

How many hotels are doing this?

About 5,000 hotels participate in the program in the United States, including all of Disney's properties, most of the Vegas strip, and dozens in New York and Chicago. Internationally, most of the Macau strip is on-board, as well as hotels in Hong Kong, London, and pretty much anywhere else most of the world wants to go. The company gives hotels placards and information cards to put in rooms, so guests know who’s making good with their unused soap.

Other companies are pitching in, as well. United Airlines just agreed to donate the unused items out of its first-class passenger kits for use in hygiene kits, including sleep masks and ear plugs for people staying in bright, noisy shelters. Seipler says he's aiming to enlist cruise lines, then possibly hospitals down the line.

“There’s a whole world of hotels out there we can get to start donating,” he said. “Right now we’ve got 20% of all hotels in the US. That’s a lot of room to grow, and a lot of soap to make.”

The next time you get even a little pang of guilt because you used only a fraction of your bar of soap, check to see if your hotel is part of Clean the World. If so, scrub up feeling just a little bit better about yourself. From your wet hands to a big bin, that soap you don’t use might go toward saving a life halfway around the world.

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer with Thrillist who's literally lost nights of sleep over wasted hotel soap. He sleeps easier now. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.