"What is soap?" a 13-year-old girl asked me. By the look of her dirty hands, I knew it was an honest question. A question that would change my life.
While working for a nonprofit in Thailand, I learned something that shook my world: There are people who don't know what soap is and have never used it. Yes, millions of people. In fact, according to Unilever, 70 million people in India alone have never washed their hands.
Most of the time, these people aren't taught about the benefits of soap use and regular hand washing. Add onto that the fact that they simply can't afford it. Families in these communities live on just a few dollars a day, and soap, which costs about $1, would require weeks of saving.
It seemed so unfair that people all over the world were living their lives without something I took for granted every single day of mine. Once I got over the initial shock, I committed myself to changing this statistic, which is when my company, Sundara, was born.
Sundara is a soap company that funds hygiene education and infrastructure initiatives for children in underserved areas of the developing world. We find sustainable, community-led ways to improve hygiene, and we currently run initiatives in Haiti, Ghana and India.
Our newest initiative provides communities like these with a continued source of soap for almost no cost.
Our secret: recycling local hotel soap.
Think about it. You use hotel soap a few times each day and then get a brand new bar the next day when housekeeping swings by. The barely used bar is discarded. What a waste.
Here's how it breaks down. There are 4.6 million hotel rooms in the United States, 2.6 million of which use bar soap. That's 2.6 million bars of gently used soap in landfills every single day. In a year that amounts to a billion bars—and that's just in the U.S.! Imagine how high the numbers are when you add in other countries.
Alright, but is all this hygienic? I mean, someone did use that soap, right? The answer is that it's as clean as a bar of soap you or I would buy at a drugstore. It is actually impossible to transmit disease and illness through soap, and the soap gets tested for any bacteria or pathogens before being distributed.
Most people don't know that soap is one of the easiest things to recycle—easier than plastic, paper or metal. All you need is a potato peeler (to take off any part of the soap that has been in contact with skin), a bleach solution (to sanitize the soap so it will not transmit disease) and a slow cooker (to melt the soap so you can remold it).
It's an incredibly simple process, which is why we train local women across the developing world to recycle soap from hotels near their communities. They distribute the new bars—free of charge—to schools, community centers and homes, while teaching about its importance, and in the process become their community's local hygiene ambassadors.
We fix the lack of knowledge about the benefits of hand washing. We create a sustainable source of soap for these communities. We cut down on waste. And, as we grow, we provide economic opportunity for women in impoverished areas.
It's a system where, truly, everyone wins.
There is no reason why, while we are conducting triple bypass surgeries in this country, millions of people go without knowledge of—or access to—the simplest medicine on Earth.
I believe personal hygiene is a right that everyone—no matter where they live—deserves to have. This is why I'm working to provide soap and education to the world's most vulnerable communities.
Want to help? Buy soap to support our initiatives at www.livesundara.com.
Want to get more involved? We're looking for volunteers. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.