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Desert Companion

Bars of Hope

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Bars of Hope
Photography by Christopher Smith

Thanks to the nonprofit Clean the World, the Strip’s discarded hotel soap helps prevent disease worldwide

It’s midday on a sunny Monday as Paul Brady pulls into a side lot at Caesars Palace, but he’s not heading anywhere near the valet parking guys. Instead, he maneuvers his lumbering delivery truck to a busy back-end loading dock, ready to make his regular pickup — a decidedly unheralded event that in its own small way is helping to make the world a healthier place.

As he walks into the bowels of the hotel-casino complex, a worker passes, pushing a cartload of dirty laundry. Brady grabs two large bins of hotel castoffs and rolls them toward his truck. Inside are bars of soap, some barely used, others that haven’t even been unwrapped. There are individual-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and lotion, many of them 80 percent full. Brady takes them all, the logo on his lime-green T-shirt offering a hint of his task. Soap Squad, it reads.

Bars of HopeBrady, 52, is part of an Orlando-based humanitarian effort called Clean the World, which for a decade has collected used hotel soap and body-care products for distribution in 127 countries — a way to help raise cleanliness standards of impoverished regions around the globe.

[The soap is shredded and sanitized, pictured right.]

Since the Vegas facility opened in 2012, drivers like Brady have made rounds at as many as 47 local hotels on and off the Strip. Each month, Brady collects 12,000 pounds of bar soap and liquids otherwise destined for the trash bin. The material is then trucked to a 12,000-square-foot warehouse on Valley View Boulevard, where it is sanitized, recycled, and repackaged with a cheery Clean the World logo.

 

Worldwide, millions of poor children under the age of 5 — as many as 3,600 a day, Clean the World officials say — die from diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea that the World Health Organization says are mostly preventable with proper daily hygiene.

Every time Brady hops up into his truck, the longtime Las Vegas resident, who loves pro wrestling and plays bass guitar in his spare time, feels unusually empowered. “Too many kids are dying every year from not being able to eat with clean hands,” he says. “They eat germs, and they get sick and quickly die from diarrhea and other diseases. This program has been able to reduce many of those deaths. We’re having an impact, and it starts right here on the loading docks of these hotels.”

The effort was spearheaded by Shawn Seipler, a onetime e-commerce employee whose job took him nationwide. One night, while staying at a hotel in Minneapolis, a thought occurred: What happens to that bar of soap he’s used only once? He called the front desk and asked. The answer shocked and angered him: All the hotel’s unused soap was thrown away.

Seipler began researching what was then an untold tale of needless waste in America. He discovered that 1 million bars of soap are thrown out each day by hotels and travelers in the U.S. The worldwide figure soars to 5 million. He learned about rebatching, the process of refurbishing used soap. Then Seipler developed a plan that would change his life and those of millions of others.

Bars of Hope

At the Clean the World facility, products such as soap, lotion, and shampoo are sorted.

Along with a small group of friends and family, Seipler began a shoestring effort in a one-car garage in Orlando. With soap collected from a few local hotels, he learned how to melt down, sanitize, and repackage the leavings into an entirely new product.

“In the beginning, they used potato peelers to cut up the old bars,” says Sandie Beauchamp, the vice president of marketing for Clean the World. “They hand-cut the new soap into bars.”

The idea has grown from there. Since 2009, Clean the World has sent 48 million bars of renovated soap to foreign countries and to homeless shelters across the U.S. The company has expanded from its first reprocessing plant in Orlando to launch others in Las Vegas, the Netherlands, and the Dominican Republic, usually in or near cities that are home to numerous hotels.

Clean the World funds its efforts by charging $6 per room annually to coordinate the collection of unwanted products from more than 5,000 U.S. clients, about 20 percent of the nation’s hotels, officials say.

The list includes all Walt Disney properties, most of the Las Vegas Strip, and dozens of hotels in New York and Chicago. Some foreign hotels participate, too. Placards in each hotel room inform guests that their soap will have a second life.

The hotel fees are used to train housekeeping staff, repurpose the soap, and pay administrative costs. The Clean the World Foundation works with NGOs and charities such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army to distribute the repurposed soap in recipient countries.

The program has received support from U.S. health experts, such as the Centers for Disease Control. “This is a practical approach to provide a needed resource to mothers and children at very low cost, with the goal of reducing disease and improving health,” says Rob Quick, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC.

The soap is reformed in to a new bar.

The soap is reformed in to a new bar.

Aaron Weatherly, manager of Clean the World’s Las Vegas facility, says the local rebatching process involves 7,000 volunteers each year. Much of the reprocessed soap is packaged into various hygiene kits that include toothbrushes, toothpaste, and hand sanitizer, which are sent to homeless shelters around the world.

The plastic bags are specialized for men, women, veterans, and children, whose kits include a Band-aid, crayons, and a coloring book. Volunteers often write notes with such messages as “We believe in you,” “You are amazing,” and “You are not alone.” The Las Vegas facility also uses the kits in a portable shower unit with four individual stalls it created to visit locations frequented by the homeless around the valley.

Brady said the soapy showers improve people’s quality of life. “You see these people after they walk out from taking a shower,” he says. “They feel better. They look better.”

On a recent weekday, the warehouse is buzzing with activity. Back from his pickup run, Brady drives a forklift to move mammoth containers of used soap that weigh 1,000 pounds each.

At a nearby sorting table, a group of student volunteers works to separate soap and other bath products, dropping them into tubes that empty into containers on the floor below, like fishermen sorting their catch.

On one wall was a map of the world with the flags of different countries that receive the donations. On another wall was a poster showing an impoverished child, along with the phrase, “Cleanliness Should Not Be a Luxury.”

The entire warehouse smells much like a perfume factory, with its overwhelming fragrance of scented soap as Weatherly demonstrates how the rebatching process works with soap products that arrive from as far away as Texas.

After the soap is separated, workers wearing breathing masks load it into a series of machines, where it is ground down and sanitized. At this point, it looks like grated mozzarella cheese. Then it’s loaded into a third machine that adds water and shapes the hardening soap into individual-sized bars. Finally, the new soap slabs are machine-stamped with Clean the World’s logo and stacked into boxes for shipping.

As the machines roar and the soap undergoes its humanitarian metamorphosis, the 42-year-old Weatherly looks on like a proud sports coach. “I’m not just here collecting a paycheck,” he says proudly. “I’m here on a mission that’s helping to save lives — to supply the world’s poor and its children with the soap they need to prevent hygiene-related illnesses.” He bends down to pick up a piece of pre-recycled soap. “That’s why I get out of bed in the morning, to live out that mission.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of countries Clean the World operates in, as well as the number of children who die daily from preventable diseases.

 

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