Sitting in his hotel room one night, tech executive and road warrior Shawn Seipler pondered a question: What happens to all those bars of barely used soap in the shower and sink?
He called a friend, Paul Till, who checked with 15 hotels in his hometown of Houston. Each said the little bars went out with the trash. Till also found on the Web that nearly 2 million children worldwide die each year from diarrheal disease. The best preventative: hand washing with soap.
Today, the men run an Orlando nonprofit called Clean the World that collects soap, plus tiny bottles of shampoo and lotion, from 125 hotels, mostly in Florida. The group distributed more than 230 tons of soap and bath amenities to Third World nations and U.S. shelters since starting in February.
Clean the World is riding a trend for hotels to act and look more green. Meeting planners ask what steps properties take to conserve energy, limit water use and reduce waste. State employee groups must hold meetings at properties that qualify under Florida's green lodging program.
"There's such a big movement in the hospitality industry to be eco-friendly," Seipler said. "They have all this soap and shampoo and tried to figure out what to do with it. We come in with a lifesaving solution."
An easy, cheap solution. Clean the World supplies videos and posters instructing housekeepers how to separate soap and "lightly used" liquids from trash. They dump the goods into hamper-sized plastic bins.
Staffers pick up the haul. Hotels pay 50 cents per room each month. At the InterContinental Hotel in Tampa's West Shore District, the bill comes to $150. "It's no-brainer," says Mary McCarthy, the hotel's engineering director.
Property owners can even claim the value of recycled soap and shampoo as a tax deduction, Seipler said, though some hotel accountants advise against it.
In a mini warehouse in Orlando, crews shave off the top layer of soap and run the bars through commercial food steamers for five minutes to kill bacteria. After bars dry, they're bundled into three-packs with plastic wrap.
Clean the World typically works through nongovernment aid agencies such as World Vision and Harvest Time International to get the soap and toiletries overseas. The group also leases space on ships out of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to deliver directly to the Evangelical Church of Haiti and Cap-Haitien Health Partnership.
On a trip there, Seipler found soap selling for the equivalent of $1.80 for a three-pack in outdoor markets. Three-quarters of the nation's population lives on less than $2 a day.
Seipler and Till originally planned to recycle hotel soap for a profit but quickly learned there wasn't a market in the United States. They quit six-figure jobs to launch the nonprofit in February 2009. Seipler flew home to Orlando and began making cold calls, starting with a small $29-a-night motel in Kissimmee.
The manager agreed on the spot to sign up. So did bigger hotels around Orlando International: the Hilton Inn Select, the La Quinta, the Sheraton Suites. Since CBS Evening News ran a story in October, Seipler says, hotels have been seeking out Clean the World.
McCarthy, the InterContinental engineering boss, was tipped off by a public relations person for the owner, Destination Hotels. The chain wants to try out the nonprofit in Tampa and then perhaps expand to all 36 properties, she said.
Clean the World officials will make a pitch to the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council today for more hotels to sign up. Five Clearwater Beach properties already participate: the Sheraton Sand Key Resort, Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort, Shepard's Beach Resort, the Holiday Inn Beach Resort & Suites and Sandpearl Resort.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.