9 Mesmerizing Photos That Show How Exactly Soap Is Recycled

Recycled soap keeps tonnes of waste out of landfills—and helps save lives to boot.

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Soap and other toiletries in a hotel bathroom
Karin Hildebrand Lau/Shutterstock

All those half-used tiny soaps…

Ever washed your hands in a hotel bathroom and wondered what happened to what was left of that tiny bar of soap after you checked out? So did Shawn Seipler. The answer—it gets thrown away—inspired the former tech entrepreneur to found Clean the World in 2009. The nonprofit now works with 8,000 hotel partners around the world to recycle soap, divert it from landfills, and send it to global NGOs working with young children living in poverty whose lack of access to this simple hygienic tool suffers high rates of sometimes fatal diarrheal disease and pneumonia. His main hotel partner, Hilton, will recycle soap from 90 per cent of its hotels by 2020, and in the 10 years since it started working with Seipler’s program, has been responsible for 1.81 million kilograms of soap being transformed into 11 million “new” bars to serve kids in 127 countries.

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sorted soap
courtesy Clean the World


Housekeepers collect used bars of soap from hotel rooms, placing them in their carts as they make their rounds, then tossing them into large, usually 32 kilogram, bins at the back of the house. Some hotels fill 450 kilogram “Big Boxes.” When the bins are filled to a certain level, they’re ready to be moved out.

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soap in bins
courtesy Clean the World


Staff go into an online portal and indicate the bins are ready for pickup. The bins are sent to one of Clean the World’s recycling facilities—across the United States and around the world, from Orlando to Hong Kong—via UPS’s carbon-neutral shipping option. This ensures that carbon credits are purchased to offset the footprint of moving these heavy loads sometimes long distances.

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crushed soap
courtesy Clean the World


What happens next is a far cry from the early days when Seipler and family shredded soap with potato peelers, then boiled and skimmed it in four Kenmore cookers in the garage. Now, when the bins reach the facility, they’re weighed so their impact can be measured and reported back to the hotel. Then their contents are dumped into soap-making machines—modified for soap recycling instead—that grind it to pellets.

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soap filter
courtesy Clean the World

First cleaning

The soap pellets now make their way into a machine called a plodder, which pushes them through an ultra-fine filter that catches outside particles such as hair, paper, and plastic as a first cleaning step. The filters have to be cleaned on average every 45 minutes. In the plodder, the pellets may be subjected to heat, or to chilling, or may have some water added. What they need to become what Seipler calls “excellent” bars of soap is determined by Soap Whisperers (their actual job title), who feel the batches as they make their way through the machines to determine if the parent material was maybe too coarse or too dry or too heavy on the moisturizer to move on to the next stage. Sometimes, says Seipler, they’ll take the whole load and send it through for another pass.

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soap noodle
courtesy Clean the World

Making noodles

When the de-haired, possibly heated or dampened soap pellets have been “surface cleaned” and pushed through the fine sieve and out the other side, they’re soap pellets no longer. They’re noodles. Seipler says that if he was making soap from scratch, now’s the time that colour or fragrance or moisturizer would be added. But, “we already have that,” he says.

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soap processing
courtesy Clean the World


Recycled soap may get heated up to three times during the process, depending on what the expert Soap Whisperers determine is necessary, says Seipler. That’s enough to kill off any bacteria that might be lingering. But to play it extra safe, the soap noodles are plopped into a mixer and disinfected with a sterilization solution that’s simply bleach diluted to 100 parts per million.

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soap stamper
courtesy Clean the World


Now the sterilized soap is dropped into a machine called a duplex plodder, where it’s further refined and coagulated and compressed using a corkscrew motion. Seipler likens the action to his childhood attempts to take a sliver of moistened leftover soap and press it into the top of a new bar, to form one homogeneous mega-bar. The aim is to get smooth bars that “aren’t crumbly or porous and will emboss nicely” under the stamper, he says.

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soap close up
courtesy Clean the World


Out the other end of the duplex plodder, the clean, well-mashed soap is pressed into one long log. Because so many different bars of small soap went into making this log, it could be patterned with a marble effect, with swirls of white and blue or green, says Seipler, or it could be tinged a single colour made from many—like lavender.

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soap in boxes
courtesy Clean the World

Cutting, stamping, and packing

Finally, the log is cut into smooth, 85 gram bars, stamped with the organization’s logo, and packed—without any further wrapping of plastic or paper, to be extra-sustainable—100 bars per box. Sixty boxes make up a pallet, and the organization’s Orlando facility, for example, can churn out six pallets’ worth of soap in a day. Worldwide, 60,000 bars of refurbished soap are re-manufactured in a day.

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Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest