Saving Cambodian lives with
slivers of hotel soap
A Pittsburgh student has created the Eco-Soap Bank for Cambodia, which collects leftover pieces to transform hygiene in rural villages.
Sometimes a good idea can bubble up from something as small as a hotel room bar of soap.
That's what happened when Samir Lakhani, a senior environmental studies major at the University of Pittsburgh, went to Cambodia last summer to build ponds for a commercial fish-raising project in rural villages and stumbled onto what could be a solution to that Southeast Asian nation’s historic and deadly hygiene problem.
"I saw mothers bathing babies in laundry detergent and doing dishes, pots and pans, in the powdered detergent too. It’s not the right kind of soap and it’s a horrifying sight," said Mr. Lakhani, 22, who grew up in Allentown, Lehigh County. “It’s a rural culture that defecates openly and has no history of handwashing.”
One out of eight Cambodian children die from a preventable disease before they reach the age of 5, according to a United Nations study. And it’s no coincidence that 75 percent of the nation’s rural population of 13 million can’t put their hands on a bar of soap to work up a cleansing lather, Mr. Lakhani said.
Such handwashing could reduce the risk of death from disease or infection by up to 60 percent, and Mr. Lakhani thinks he’s found a solution to the soap supply problem at the legendary Angkor Wat temples. The 800-year-old World Heritage Site, located in the northern part of Cambodia, attracts 2 million tourists a year, and is surrounded by 350 hotels and guest houses that cater to the visitors.
Those hotels and guesthouses throw away thousands of once or twice used bars of soap a day.
To start to get that soap into the hands of Cambodia’s rural population, Mr. Lakhani formed Eco-Soap Bank. The non-profit collects the tiny, used soap bars from the tourist hotels, sanitizes, grates and melts them into a liquid, packages the liquid soap in clean, recycled plastic bottles, and then distributes them in rural villages, medical clinics and schools.
“We’re collecting soap from only 20 of the hotels now. We want to do more, but we’re already getting two tons a month,” Mr. Lakhani said. “We have soap coming out of our ears already, and the raw supply is just about limitless.”
So is the need. Sanitation is a problem throughout rural Cambodia, just as it is in many developing nations, where, according to the World Health Organisation, the leading cause of death for children is hygiene-related illness, like diarrhea, the common cold, pneumonia, giardiasis and other intestinal tract diseases, respiratory diseases and food-borne diseases..
A host of international non-profit organisations have formed over the past decade to link the need for better hygiene in developing nations to the burgeoning soap waste stream produced by the tourist hotel industry. Many of those programs are headquartered in the U.S., where 2.6 million soap bars are thrown away by hotels every day.
Clean the World, based in Orlando, Fla., is the largest global recycler of soap from the hospitality industry, operating in partnership with 2,290 hotels and resorts. Since it was founded in 2009, its website states it has distributed more than 22 million bars of soap to children and families in 96 nations. And, Mr. Lakhani said, the non-profit recently agreed to provide 50,000 soap bars for shipment to West Africa in partnership with Pittsburgh-based Brother's Brother Foundation, to help in curbing the spread of the Ebola virus. .
The Global Soap Project — its motto: "Raising the Bar on Global Hygiene" — is based in Atlanta, collects soaps from hotels with 150,000 rooms in the U.S. and distributes the soap to 32 countries on four continents. And the Las Vegas-based Global Soap Project collects used bars of soap from Las Vegas hotels and, after processing and sanitising, ships soap to refugee camps in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Eco-Soap is different, Mr. Lakhani said, because it avoids the high costs of transporting recycled soap from the U.S. to underdeveloped countries by using waste soap already in Cambodia and supporting local communities where the reprocessing is done.
“The problem with some of these centralised programs is they’re sitting on a mountain of sop because it’s too costly to ship,” he said. “We don’t have that problem because we’re right in the middle of the communities that need it. In fact, any country with a significant tourist industry is perfect for establishment of a soap bank.”
Eco-Soap has five employees at its Cambodian soap processing facility and office in Siem Reab, a tourist town near the Angkor Wat temples. It partners with five nearby schools and with eight Cambodian NGOs (non-government organisations) to distribute the soap and educate rural residents on the health benefits of handwashing.
“We would prefer to partner too with village leaders and schools where we can teach good sanitation practices,” he said. “And the beauty of the soap recycling process we use is it can be done with simple equipment and can be done in the rural villages. Eventually, we want to train the villages, train women who can work at it part-time, to recycle their own soap from the hotel bar soap we collect.”
Eco-Soap’s recycled soap already plays a central role in the health and hygiene lessons learned in classes run by Sally Hetherington, for the Human and Hope Association, in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
“Our community tends to lack hygiene. For example, some of our preschool students , aged 4 and 5, had never brushed their teeth before attending our organisation. and most students don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet,” Ms. Hetherington said in an email from Cambodia.
"By enforcing the hygiene message with this soap, we can gradually reduce the amount of illnesses as a result of poor hygiene which will increase school attendance for our students. Personally, I think this project is a fantastic initiative which utilises local resources to ensure it's more sustainable."
Jessica Whitney, a nurse and director of the Safe Haven Medical Outreach clinic, also in Siem Reap, said the recycled soap is especially helpful to the disabled and special needs children from poor rural areas that visit her clinic.
“In a rural environment where kids often go without shoes, kids get plenty of cuts and scrapes. Without basic tools like soap and clean water with which to keep these small wounds clean, they often become much bigger problems. The fact that we are now able to provide families with a steady supply of soap has vastly improved their ability to prevent everyday cuts and scrapes from becoming much more serious, and possibly dangerous, infections. This is especially important for children with disabilities, who are often at greater risk for being easily overcome by infections,” Ms. Whitney said in an email last week.
"In the developed world, we take soap for granted," she continued. “But if you don't have any, especially if you’re a child with health problems living in a rural environment, it has far-reaching consequences. The Eco-Soap Bank has filled a huge need for the families we work with.”
Mr. Lakhani said he recently agreed to a partnership with Sealed Air Corp., a 55-year-old international packaging firm based in Charlotte, N.C. Its signature product is Bubble Wrap, but it also runs a program, Soap for Hope, that will help Eco-Soap expand distribution in Cambodian villages.
He said he is returning to Cambodia in May, following graduation from Pitt, to help establish and oversee the Soap for Hope program. He’ll also continue negotiations with the Cambodian central government aimed at gaining access for Eco-Soap to the nation’s hospitals, which he wants to use to expand distribution of recycled soap to patients seeking treatment for preventable illnesses.
That partnership could increase Eco-Soap’s access to 100,000 more children a year, he said.
“We’ve moved from producing 300 litres to 500 litres of liquid soap a month, and, with the hospital partnerships, hope that will grow to many thousands of litres of soap,” Mr. Lakhani said. “The need for soap is widespread, chronic and never-ending. Eventually we hope to supply the whole country with soap made from the waste products of the hotel industry.”
Additional information about the Eco-Soap Bank is available at ecosoapbank.org.
The above article by Don Hopey first published on post-gazette.com in 2015.