344 | Clean the World: Recycling hotel soap prepares nonprofit to save lives in pandemic

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CLEAN AND SAFE: Caesars Entertainment, Caesars Foundation and Clark County, Nevada, on Oct. 25 unveiled Clean the World’s Fresh Start WASH & Wellness mobile unit at the LGBTQ Center in Southern Nevada. Pictured are, from left, Sean McBurney, regional president, Ceasars Entertainment; Tick Segerblom, Clark County commissioner, and Shawn Seipler, founder and CEO of Clean the World. The unit will travel throughout the county, setting up at churches, homeless shelters and community centers. The simple act of taking a shower has put thousands of homeless people on an upward trajectory to self-sufficiency, said Seipler.

Founder and CEO Shawn Seipler ‘iterates’ to keep mission alive and active in crisis

Since its start in 2009 with leftover soap from a single hotel, Clean the World has recycled 63 million bars of soap collected from more than 8,000 hotels and resorts and saved countless lives in 130 countries.

Today, Clean the World is a social enterprise with the mission of saving lives around the world through its for-profit venture as well as Clean the World Foundation, its $6 million nonprofit organization that is fighting the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases around the world by giving people access to water, sanitation and hygiene education.

Sam Stevens, executive director of Clean the World Foundation, said in a video message that in the first 90 days of the pandemic, the foundation distributed soap to more than 3 million people in 20 U.S. states and 12 other countries. It is committed to serving 1 million people a month throughout the crisis.

The growth of Clean the World has been supported from the beginning by the hospitality industry. But the coronavirus pandemic dealt a blow to the lodging sector and thus to Clean the World.

SOAP SAVES LIVES: A group of children hold bars of soap produced by Clean the World, a nonprofit social enterprise that recycles hotel amenity soap and distributes in hygiene kits around the world to reduce the child mortality rate. Episode 344 of Lodging Leaders podcast launches a special series called “Happy To Be Of Service: Stories of hospitality giving back.” Future stories will be featured as bonus content in Lodging Leaders’ regular episodes.

Seipler often celebrates Clean the World’s auspicious decade of growth from a single hotel in Orlando to a global outreach. Today, he marvels how a hospitality industry in recovery has helped the nonprofit pick up the pieces and move forward with its life-saving mission.

Seipler came up with the idea to recycle used soap from hotels while a frequent business traveler working in global sales for a technology company.

One day, he asked the hotel’s front desk agent what happens to the soap and shampoo after guests check out and was told they were thrown away.

“I thought that was interesting answer,” Seipler said. “I did some research and at that time, in 2009, there were a 4.6 million hotel rooms and about a 60 percent occupancy rate. So my quick back-of-the-envelope math said that if all hotels were throwing their soap away, we were throwing away about a million bars of soap every day from hotels across the United States and a couple of billion bars from hotels every day across the globe. I thought that was a tremendous amount of waste.”

Seipler researched whether it’s possible to recycle soap and, if so, how to do it.

“I found some very easy way called re-batching where you would melt it down and reform it into a new bar.”

Next, he studied how the recycled soap would be used.

“I recall having about 13 different studies and all those studies showed that back then in 2009, there were 9,000 children under the age of 5 dying every single day to pneumonia and diarrheal disease,” he said. “And all the studies showed that if we just gave them soap and taught them how and when to wash their hands we could cut those deaths in half.

“So I had my what’s been described as my moment of obligation, and I just thought to myself, ‘Wow, we’re throwing away millions of bars of soap every single day. And at the same time, there are thousands of children dying every day because of not having access to that soap. And all I’ve got to do is figure out how to get all the soap from the hotels, how to recycle it and how to get it in the hands of children and mothers around the world to literally help save their lives.’”

Garage Band

Seipler and his relatives got to work in the two-car garage at his home in Orlando, Florida.

They MacGyvered the process, using vegetable peelers to scrape the amenity-sized bars of soap that they put in a meat grinder and then into pots on cooktops to boil the brew clean of impurities before pouring it into wooden molds. They used wire to slice the blocks into bars, which they put on racks and dried with floor fans.

“ And that’s how we started with this whole idea that we were going to create this global impact company that was going to primarily work with hotels across the globe to take their used soaps and bottled amenities, recycle those items and send them to children and families all over the world, who in so many cases were literally dying because of a lack of proper hygiene and soap.”

Clean the World has recycling centers in Orlando and Las Vegas and in four international cities. Participating hotels are in the U.S., Canada, Europe, the U.K. and most of East Asia with hotels in China about the join. It sends hygiene kits to 130 countries.

The most important numbers are those associated with the decrease in disease and death in children. Seipler said the child mortality rate associated with pneumonia and diarrheal disease has over 12 years decreased by more than 65 percent.

“We have saved lives through soap, wash and hygiene education with the awesome support of all of our hotel partners and housekeepers and donors and supporters who have all bought into this mission.”

WASHING DAY: Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta in Oct. 15, 2019, participates in Clean the World Foundation’s Global Handwashing Day as Sam Stevens looks on. On that day, Hilton announced it bolstered its support for Clean the World by expanding the soap collection to 5,300 hotels in 70 countries. In January 2020, Hilton made soap recycling an operating standard across all its brands.

‘Wash Your Hands’

Seven years ago, Clean the World made T-shirts printed with the words, “Wash Your Hands, Bro.”

Little did Seipler and his team know how pertinent that advice would be in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic shutdown the global travel industry and reduced Clean the World’s resources to almost zero.

But more than a decade of creative strategizing and making friends in high places prepared Clean the World to recast its mission for the COVID-19 era.

Clean the World is what Seipler calls a “hybrid” organization with 18 nonprofit or 501 (c)(3) social enterprises and for-profit B Corporations, which are businesses that meet standards of social and environmental performances and put people before profit.

Clean the World earns revenue through business and organizations that pay to participate in its social-impact programs. For example, Hilton sponsored events in which participants built hygiene kits with products provided by Clean the World, including recycled bars of soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes.

Other organizations such as churches, Girl Scouts and event and convention planners also sponsored hygiene-kit assembly parties as a way to foster fellowship while supporting a cause.

The hygiene-kit builds were the second-highest revenue generator for Clean the World.

Pandemic protocols prohibited large gatherings, hotels were not using near the numbers of soap as pre-pandemic and corporations did not have money to support Clean the World.

“So in the case of our hotel soap- and bottled-amenity recycling program, when COVID hit, not only did we lose the product that we need to recycle to distribute to those in need around the world but we also lost our largest client base and hotels as they shut down,” Seipler said.

Clean the World had a six-month supply of used soap to process, but its loss of revenue meant it could not pay employees or buy items it used in the recycling and packaging process.

Operating with a significantly reduced staff, Clean the World processed what it could in the first few months of the pandemic. “We were going to process and send out as much soap as we possibly can. And if this ends up kind of being the end of the road for Clean the World at least are going to go down putting as much soap on the streets as we possibly can in doing our part to stop the spread and fight the pandemic,” Seipler said.

Meantime, he and his leadership team began to think of ways to revise the organization and its programs.

HOME-BUILT HYGIENE KIT: A girl who Clean the World identifies as a member of the Bronson family is at her home with the contents of a Soap Saves Lives box from Clean the World. During the shelter-in-place days of the coronavirus pandemic, the organization raised money by shipping do-it-yourself hygiene kits to families who would put the kits together and either return them to Clean the World or drop off at a local homeless shelter or food bank. In most cases, corporations sponsored the project for furloughed employees or those who were working from home. Soap Saves Lives at-home program was one of the ways Clean the World managed to generate revenue during the pandemic, said Shawn Seipler, founder and CEO.

DIY Soap Boxes

The first new idea was to find corporations that would sponsor at-home hygiene-kit builds for employees either furloughed or working from home.

“We created the Soap Saves Lives boxes and we took what was an onsite, large assembly line product and we condense it all down to a box,” Seipler said. “Corporations could purchase these boxes for their employees.”

The organization designed a website dedicated to the program that families could log into to plan and execute the hygiene-kit build.

The kits come with shipping labels so the families can ship the box to local homeless shelters and food pantries. They can also send it back to Clean the World, which distributes them through Feeding America.

Companies that supported Clean the World’s home-based kits for their employees included Hilton, Amazon, Bacardi and JP Morgan Chase.

Their contributions enabled Clean the World to meet its fund-raising goals and finance its operations.

Meantime, Seipler wanted to help communities with large homeless populations find solutions to curbing the spread of COVID-19. He thought of how to expand the use of its mobile washing stations.

GETTING CLEAN: Clean the World builds and distributes Fresh Start WASH & Wellness mobile shower units to local municipalities seeking to help homeless people as well as curb the spread of COVID-19.

Getting Its Wheels

Clean the World launched its mobile washing stations in 2017. The Fresh Start WASH & Wellness program began with the support of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. to improve the lives of homeless people.

“Las Vegas Sands really wanted to dial in and help their local community,” Seipler said.

Clean the World built a mobile unit in a 40-foot trailer complete with full bathrooms where people can shower, shave and clean up for the day. “It was a real experience for somebody experiencing homelessness to be able to take a hot shower, get clean again, brush their teeth,” Seipler said.

“From 2017 to the beginning of 2020 homelessness in Southern Nevada decreased by 15 percent. We gave out 25,000 showers.” People also received a hygiene kit that would last for more than a week.

The day that President Trump declared COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency in the U.S. Seipler was flying home from Las Vegas where he had met with Clark County officials to plan an expansion of the Fresh Start program.

The local government wanted to buy three more mobile WASH & Wellness units as part of its effort to build a continuum of care and rehabilitation for unsheltered residents.

Seipler did not hear from Clark County officials in the first few weeks of the pandemic, but soon enough he got the request to move forward with the units as soon as possible as the virus put unsheltered residents at high risk of contracting and spreading the disease.

Besides curbing the spread of COVID-19, the project helped Clark County reduce the number of citizens who were homeless because as people waited in line for the shower, representatives of social-service and health-care agencies would speak to them to learn their needs and provide them aid.

Turns out that literally getting clean is a boost in someone’s upward trajectory to a better life.

“And for us at Clean the World, we said, ‘That’s a direction we need to go.’ And so we very quickly ramped up our efforts there,” Seipler said.

Word spread and Orange County in central Florida bought Fresh Start units. Other cities and counties in the Northwest and Midwest are on the procurement list, Seipler said.

In many cases, the local municipalities are applying the federal government’s COVID relief funds toward the program.

Caesars Entertainment, Caesars Foundation and Clark County on Oct. 25 unveiled a Fresh Start WASH & Wellness mobile unit at the LGBTQ Center in Southern Nevada. The unit will travel throughout the county, setting up at churches, homeless shelters and community centers.

The influx of funds for Fresh Start WASH & Wellness Program boosted Clean the World’s bottom line. “We were able to not only save the company by deploying those three units in Clark County, but we also created a whole other product line that is really taking off,” Seipler said.

As travel begins to come back this year and is forecasted to continue to recover, hotels will be able to send their soap to Clean the World again.

Seipler believes many people are more aware of the importance of personal hygiene to fight illnesses. And that has put Clean the World on its own upward trajectory.

UPSCALE ACCOMMODATIONS: One of four shower units in Clean the World’s Fresh Start WASH and Wellness mobile unit unveiled on Oct. 25 at the LGBTQ Center in Southern Nevada. The unit is sponsored by Caesars Entertainment, Caesars Foundation and Clark County, Nevada. Click here to see a video of the ceremony during which the unit was unveiled.

How to Help

For more information, to donate or to get involved with Clean the World, go online to Clean the World Foundation or Clean the World.

We Want to Hear From You

If you know of a hospitality company or someone who works in the industry and is giving back through a long-term project, let us know. Email us at lodgingleaders.com/contact.

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