Let's take a moment to consider the afterlife of hotel bathroom amenities.
Some soaps and toiletries are adopted by guests, transported to new sink countertops and shower caddies. Most, however, are hoisted by housekeeping into trash receptacles, a one-way ticket to the landfill.
But then there's a third way, a winding journey slick with suds and good intentions.
It's a way that came to Florida business traveler Shawn Seipler as he pondered the soap in his Minneapolis Holiday Inn room one day in 2008. Curious about the ultimate fate of the bar he barely had used, he trotted down to the front desk to ask about its post-checkout destiny. It would be tossed, he learned. It was an answer he would hear 30 more times during an informal poll of hotels conducted with his friend Paul Till.
The American hospitality industry is a big waster, creating nearly 200 million metric tons of solid waste per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of that heap, only 30 percent is recycled.
That wet bar of soap in a Midwestern hotel led Seipler and Till to found Clean the World, another blade in the hotel industry's growing "green" movement. (Add to the burgeoning field: liquid dispensers in the showers, smaller soaps and less-full bottles of toiletries.) The Orlando-based organization opened in 2009 with the twin goals of protecting the environment and improving sanitation in developing nations to help combat the biggest health threats to children: acute lower-respiratory infection and diarrheal disease.
Since then, the group has partnered with nearly 1,300 lodgings in North America and Puerto Rico and has handed out more than 10 million bars of soap in 45 countries, including El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Mongolia and Romania. The soap you used after, say, a romp in Disney World could wind up in the clutches of a child in Mali or a family in Haiti.
"We knew that 1 million soaps were getting thrown away every day and that there were 9,000 children dying a day," said Seipler. "This lights the fire to try to help and save them."
Of course, recycling hotel toiletries isn't Clean the World's own eco-invention. Hotels have been doling out reprocessed soaps and toiletries for years, but on a much smaller scale. At the turn of this century, a Texas organization started distributing hotel hygiene products to Mexican communities. Grass-roots groups also collected amenities and handed them out to local homeless shelters and hospitals.
Clean the World "took a lot of the little things that were going on and stepped them up," said Maher. A critical expansion, considering that there are 4.8 million guest rooms in the United States, each one outfitted with an array of toiletries.
Others also have joined the cause. In 2009, Derreck Kayongo, a Ugandan refugee, and his wife founded the Global Soap Project, a Georgia-based nonprofit group that recently shipped 10,000 bars of soap to the new country of South Sudan and has forged a partnership with Hilton Worldwide, a big fish in the hotel industry pond. In a smaller puddle, the Downstream Casino Resort in the tri-state area of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas created with Joplin Workshops the Hand in Hand program in 2010. The group delivers kits stocked with recycled products (source: the 222-room casino, the Hilton Garden Inn in Joplin, Mo., and the Hotel Phillips in Kansas City, Mo.) to local Catholic missions and charitable centers, including women's and homeless shelters in tornado-torn Joplin.
To understand the cogs and wheels of this new venture, I visited Clean the World's headquarters in December. For two days, I followed the bubble as it bounced from hotel soap dish to grinding machine to open hands.
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Michael Figueroa, assistant executive housekeeper at the Peabody Orlando, kicked off the morning with a pep talk. At 8 a.m., he gathered the staff around an easel displaying the Clean the World logo and details.
"We support Haiti with our soaps," he said to the workers, 60 percent of whom immigrated from the impoverished nation. "So remember, during the workday, please collect the soaps in your little bags."
The day before, I had joined housekeeper Celine DeRosier during her morning rounds. DeRosier, a mother of four who moved to Florida from Haiti in 1985, swept the counter of used products, collecting one bottle each of shampoo, conditioner and lotion, plus two soaps, including one in the shape of the iconic Peabody duck. She tossed the toiletries into a plastic bag already two layers thick with recycled goods.
If the soap looks slightly used or wet, she bags it. If the item sat in the shower or rested on the lip of the tub, she tossed it in -- even full bottles of shampoo, conditioner and lotion.
Since signing up with Clean the World in 2009, the 1,641-room hotel has contributed more than 54,000 bars of soap, enough to provide almost 11,000 children with a month's supply, and 8,925 pounds of bottled amenities, enough for 6,347 children for an entire month. Now multiply that figure by daily deliveries of more than 100 boxes of soap to Clean the World, and you're swimming in suds.
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Till and Seipler started their enterprise in a single-car garage in South Florida. They also had a large obstacle to overcome: figuring out how to clean the soap, a redundant concept until you look at some of the donated stuff. (One word: hair. One response: ick.) They set up a lab in a friend's garage, improvising with Kenmore cookers, a meat grinder and soap molds.
Since then, they have upgraded their machinery. Now, one machine grinds the used soap down to pellets that resemble broken crayons. Then, with a quick change of parts, it mixes the ground-up soap with glycerine and water, shapes the goo into a long brick, then slices it.
The finished products, honeydew green and smelling of spring freshness, roll down the belt. The squares drop into cardboard boxes, ready for shipment to faraway lands.
The Orlando facility processes more than 40,000 bars of soap a day, mainly from properties on the East Coast. The center in Las Vegas covers the West Coast, including Laguna Beach, Calif., the first city to collaborate with the organization, and the Strip casinos.
The newest operation in Cincinnati will focus strictly on rebottling liquid amenities. Overall, the company, which weighs each incoming donation on a giant scale, has prevented 1.2 million pounds of waste from languishing in landfills.
"It's such a classic no-brainer," said Marshall Kelberman, the Peabody Orlando's rooms division director. "It's volunteer now, but I wouldn't be offended if it was regulatory."