On soap and other waste: are we doing it wrong?

In nature, and in a sustainable society, waste from one process is food for another (this and lots of other great stuff from William McDonough). Clean the World, and their effort to capture wasted soaps from hotels across the United States, might well be a brilliant example of this principle in action.  Yet the recent enthusiasm for the Clean the World initiative gives one pause.

Concerns about the soap recycling initiative:

1.  Why so much wasted soap?  This seems a design issue.  Hotels are under the impression that people need more soap than they apparently do. Scandic Hotels and many other properties who meet criteria for eco-certifications, have long avoided such waste though the use of refillable containers.

2.   Access to clean water and toilets  The communication here, for all the life-saving it references, seems to overlook the big part of the crisis that is the lack of access to clean water and sanitation (toilets and water treatment).  How do we join up a soap initiative with an access-to-clean-water-and-toilets initiative so that boxes of soap don’t arrive  independent of the water needed to make them effective?

3.  Donations of such products are discouraged by charity experts.  For every free bar of soap that arrives, the entrepreneurial incentive to open a shop or create a small business to create and distribute soap just got smaller.  Is it not better to build capacity in these communities than create a culture of dependence?

4.  Local donations downplayed?  Although a number of US-based charities receive soap, the front page of the Clean the World website has a focus on faces from impoverished nations.  Maybe it’s just a design choice, and is related to their brand and communication position that soap is needed to save lives but it seems odd not to position this as a local need, as well.

The point, here, isn’t to decry any organization as misguided, but to ask something more of our industry.  We’re better than this.  We can design our businesses to eliminate such waste and allocate the resulting savings in ways that truly build capacity and create meaningful change for communities in need.


  1. Paul Till says:

    Although I respect the opinions of the author of this article, I am disappointed that said author didn’t take the opportunity to even talk to anyone in our organization about everything we do at Clean the World. Had he done so, he would have gathered more facts on our domestic distribution to homeless shelters, women shelters and other social outreach organizations. He would have also learned that our recycled soap goes into hygiene kits put together by our NGO partners who then distribute these kits globally to people in great need, specifically children. We at Clean the World will never profess to have all the answers to combat the challenges many people living in under developed countries face. Our focus is to simply help reduce the number of child deaths due to hygiene-related diseases. There have been many clinical studies conducted over the years proving the effectiveness that bar soap has on reducing the contracting and spreading of hygiene-related diseases. Yes, clean water and proper sanitation are also major components needed to reduce the number one and number two killers of children under the age of 5. These two specific components will also be incorporated as we continue forward in our mission. Clean the World is now entering our 3rd year of existence and we will seek strategic partnerships in the very near future with organizations whose expertise lies in these areas. It seems obvious to me that by doing so, we will be able to accelerate the impact of our core mission.

    Perhaps our approach is seemingly too simplistic for some individuals. Should the alternative be for us to sit back and wait for the great collective minds of the world to come up with a more complicated and costly way to to make any semblence of a difference? If our simplistic, common sense approach can save one child’s life then I will personally deem our mission a success.

    Paul Till
    Clean the World

    • Michael Luehrs says:

      Thank you for that, Paul. I appreciate very much the commitment and heart expressed here. In addition, I offer salute to you effort to see a need an create a response, rather than sit back and worry or complain.
      This was not intended as a piece of investigative journalism (hence, no effort made to track anybody down at your organization), but a bit of a provocative question to hotels and professionals in the industry: Why the waste in the first place? If we’re going to donate, can we ask the tough questions that will ensure that our donations are meeting a need? Can we be working to make a difference at home?
      I understand that these questions aren’t easy. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I might, however, assert that organizations aren’t always as thoughtful as they should be.. and that sometimes we look too closely at the ‘end of pipe’ (wasted soap in this example) and not the cause itself.
      Thank you for taking the time to so thoughtfully respond and to represent Clean the World’s position. I hope we’ll have occasion to meet so that I might learn more at some point. In the meantime, I’ll hope you can understand the positive spirit behind my efforts to challenge industry norms and process.

      Michael Luehrs

    • Guy Bigwood says:

      Paul- thanks for defending your position here and entering into dialog. I´m a big fan of your work.
      The post is very connected to a big project we have with a large congress where we have spent years improving recycling processes, and have focused sufficiently upstream at changing operating processes. Lets all work together to educate and change the system. Do you do work in Europe or Asia? We have only seen your work in the US.


  2. Shawna Mckinley says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post and responses. I think the questions in this post are merited, and the response of programs to fill the gap are also merited. Right now there is a need and opportunity to better use left over soap. Kudos to Clean the World for stepping up with a solution. Putting that aside though, Michael asks an important question: could hotels do better by shifting the focus up the pipeline? The point being source reduction needs to move higher on the ‘green’ decision chain. To remove the issue from soap and to another meetings-related context, I’m reminded of a similar situation with vinyl show banners. We recently worked with a group who take vinyl banners and use them to provide skills training for workers by designing and manufacturing bags and briefcases. Although it’s great to support an ngo that is recycling waste in a creative way and providing a great community service, the question remains: could we do better by reducing the amount of vinyl banners we use? Yes, probably. Sincerely appreciate the effort of the ngo helping us to manage our waste, but really, it’s better for organizers to cut back on material use to begin with.

  3. Roger Simons says:

    Hello all, great to see a lively debtate! I would like to address a number of remaining points:

    Is the Toyota Prius a bad product because it is a hybrid vehicle and not fully electric? The answer is of course – no, it’s a great step in the right direction and has been a wake up call for the car industry to create more sustainable alternatives. The point I’m trying to make it here is that for mainstream society and business to become sustainable, we must take the first steps in order to eventually run. I know that within our industry we’ve been spreading a “step-by-step” approach and Clean the World are doing fantastic things with waste, repurposing it and saving a hell of a lot of lives. If we shoot down every initiative that might not fit an idealistic vision of a perfectly sustainable society then we only add further fear to organisations that are reluctant to disclose what they are doing for fear of it not being flawless. This is a real problem in our industry, there are a lack of case studies of sustainable events because those that do practice sustainability fear they are not doing enough, when rather doing something is much better than doing nothing at all.
    There are in fact very few businesses or even events that are absolutely perfect, COP 15 in Copenhagen, the UN conference on these very issues incinerated 84 tons of trash, this is not perfect sustainability in action but there are obvious reasons why one cannot become perfectly sustainable overnight and we shouldn’t take away from all the great other initiatives onsite.

    Building capacity in communities to retail soap is a noble endeavour and I would suggest that many hotel chains are investing financial resources in charities like UNICEF that support developments of these type (this is a charity that the hotel chain that recently announced a partnership with CTW supports). However, without being an expert on the matter or having been there I think we can safely conclude that to withhold assistance to Haiti in the grip of such a humanitarian disaster would not have been the right step and CTW’s great work has enabled 000’s of lives to be saved- and this is only in one destination.
    We have to be realistic and praise major hotel chains that have taken a positive step in the right direction, there is still plenty of debate about the balance between a “luxury” experience that some consumers expect and unfortunately packaged soap is deemed to fall into this category, I hope that will change and no doubt CTW do too but at this moment in time, the problem exists, hotel chains are still struggling with the issue of luxury vs sustainability and many of them are not recycling used soap at all. Lets take a moment to praise those that are taking positive steps and ultimately hope these first steps are on a path to a holistic vision of sustainability that many of us would like to see in our industry.

    • Michael Luehrs says:

      Thanks so much, Roger, for adding to the thoughtful responses to what seems to be a sensitive issue. Clearly, we must start somewhere. For years we have been vocal champions of the many organizations who are getting started. We recognize fully the need to foster basic actions so that they can, in turn, inform more positive action.
      The point, here, isn’t to bash anybody.. or to create an atmosphere where people feel apprehensive to initiate any action .. the point is that as we mature and develop, we need to revisit our processes to ensure their effectiveness. While it’s important that organizations get started with sustainable practices, is it not better that they benefit from any learnings from actors that have preceeded them? How else are we to improve? The questions here are less to badger the businesses currently engaged in them but to serve as a form of stakeholder feedback.
      The waste generated by the COP15 event is an example we’ve shared many times as an expensive lesson. The resulting improvement to the event management system, and the transparent reporting of results serves others who can avoid the same unfortunate oversights.
      We need to be thoughtful rebels, to a degree. Not to demean anybody or be a barrier to hope or innovation, obviously.. but to challenge what has been the status quo for decades.. to improve on the good actions already underway. By working together to hold the bar ever higher, identifying potential opportunities to improve is something from which we all benefit. Rather than feel bruised at a perceived critique, let’s see in our industry the fantastic opportunities to evolve.. let’s be willing to say the Emperor has no clothes (should that, at some point, be the case) and collaborate to pursue sustainable practices for mutually beneficial results.

  4. Saundra says:

    I’m afraid I’m not a fan of the recycled soap being sent to developing world ideas – or for that matter of the rest of our unwanted goods being sent overseas. The developed world seems to have this mindset that our waste is the solution to everyone else’s problem. Soap is both available and inexpensive in developing countries. It is far better and cheaper to purchase soap locally than to collect, recycle, ship, and distribute soap internationally. This is true for most other products as well.
    The economic impact that the continued and growing shipment of free goods to other countries is very real and does impact their economy. It is far better to support their own markets than to undermine them with free goods. This video I made for A Day Without Dignity gets to the heart of this matter. http://goodintents.org/in-kind-donations/the-day-without-dignity-video
    It’s time we stopped shipping our unwanted goods overseas. We should not be damaging local economies in an attempt to make the best of our over-consumptive societies.

    • Paul Till says:


      I’m sorry to hear that you’re not a fan of the concept in “turning trash into treasure.” I’m not in total agreement of your statement that “soap is both available and inexpensive in developing conuntries.” I’m curious to know if that statement is based on any extensive research conducted in these “developed” unnamed countries. I know that while I was in the country of Haiti during one of our soap distribution trips, we found that a 3-pack of small bar soap was around $3.00. The average earnings of a native Haitian is about $2.00 a day. Ths applies to the very few Haitians who actually have a way to make a living considering the country is near 70% unemployment. So, if I’m a Haitian who is struggling to just put food on the table for my family, what do I spend my $2.00 per day earnings on, food or a luxury item like bar soap? Seems weird to call bar soap a “luxury” item does it not? However, that is exactly what bar soap is in some countries… a luxury item.

      Conservatively, a million bars of soap pour into our nation’s landfills daily. We now have a way to repurpose soap thus giving it a 2nd life which can then be provided to those individuals, specifically children who don’t have access to these items. Preventing the spread of hygiene-related diseases and reducing child death due to hygiene-related diseases is the primary purpose for our organization’s existence. I’m sorry but I do not subscribe to the notion that our providing recyled bars of soap that would normally be filling up our landfills will ultimately be detrimental to the economic sustainability of under-developed countries. Keep in mind that we primarily distribute to under-developed countries.


      Paul Till
      Clean the World

  5. Midori says:

    Ironic how the title of this blog is Less Conversation, More Action…
    So what’s the appropriate action?
    Because the way I see it, in the near future, most hotels are not going to transition to using bulk soap dispensers overnight.
    Should CTW package these soaps and sell at wholesale prices to local entrepreneurs in these countries? Use the proceeds to set up some type of microfinance program? Keep it home and distribute domestically?
    Saundra, I see you advise organizations on giving money rather than goods, I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts 🙂

    I’m hearing some conversation, but not a lot of suggested action.
    So, I’d really, really like to hear what the ingenious, creative minds who live on this blog would envision as a solution to this serious issue of hygiene and mounds of wasted soap clashing with what is best for the developing countries. (I swear, that’s meant in all earnestness, even though it sounds like I’m being sarcastic. You are all some of the smartest people I know!)

    • Michael Luehrs says:

      Well, I’ll leave for Guy the placement on a list of smart people you know and offer a response which, likely, won’t be satisfying to anybody looking for fast resolution to the complex challenges reviewed in this post.
      I guess the intention of this post wasn’t to create some kind of Manifesto which clarified specific ‘to-do’s’ but was more of a series of questions for people interested in the topic to share their own ideas. To be the start to the discussion which, if appropriate as deemed by the stakeholders involved, could lead to action.
      But, *eyes gauntlet* I might offer some additional thoughts..
      Perhaps one could summarize the actions needed into: education+collaboration+communication.
      Organizations who have gotten educated about sustainable development principles have built stronger businesses. Scandic (mentioned here because they were mentioned in the original post) practically revolutionized their business model (including a ‘re-think’ of how they provide soap) after the well publicized partnership with The Natural Step (www.naturalstep.org). The Natural Step is a good example of a first action to help businesses take action to (a) understand sustainability (b) identify what sustainability means to them and (c) identify that ‘gap to sustainability’ which can inform specific actions and next steps through backcasting and goal setting.
      Next, armed with the resulting information, organizations can collaborate with stakeholders. Asking tough questions and working to unpack ideas and actions that will inform eventual solutions. As we’ve learned from the collection of emerging sustainability-related standards for the events industry: Check your work. This process can be a rocky road. Stakeholder engagement means hearing feedback which isn’t always welcome.
      Transparent reporting of actions and results (communication.. and, itself, an action) can help to inform stakeholders, some of whom may not be ‘yes men’, but may be people who ask for more until, perhaps, positive and innovative change happens.
      So, the different players (hotels, solution provider, planners, etc) in this article could each take a different set of actions within their own sphere of influence and control. Simple and humble, these suggestions, but also proven and meriting of consideration.
      Thanks, as always,

  6. John Ferrell says:

    I like that you said that hotels think that we need more soap than we actually do. If I was going to go to a hotel I would want to know that I have enough soap for me and not too much. You may want to recycle the soap that you don’t use so that the environment is more healthy. https://soaprejuvenator.com/

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