Shawn Seipler is on a mission to save lives. He wants to do it with soap.
It began about seven years ago. It was a tiny operation. A few friends and family met in a single car garage in Orlando, Florida. They used meat grinders, potato peelers and cookers to recycle used soap into fresh bars.
The nonprofit initiative is now called Clean the World. It has grown to include industrial recycling facilities in Las Vegas, Orlando and Hong Kong, cities where hotels are plentiful. The used bars of soap can be gathered easily by the thousands.
As a frequent traveler while working for a tech company, Seipler had a thought one night. He was staying at a Minneapolis hotel. He called the front desk. He asked what happens to the bar of soap when he's done using it.
"They said they just threw it away."
Seipler is now the group's CEO. He discovered that millions of used bars of soap from hotels worldwide are sent to landfills. Meanwhile, many people in developing nations are dying from illnesses. Some could potentially be prevented if the people had access to simple hygiene products.
Thus began his mission. He's out to save lives. His weapons are soap and even half-used bottles of amenities like shampoo.
"It's a huge problem," said Dr. William Schaffner. He is a professor of preventative medicine and infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. "One of the most common kinds of illnesses in the world are those that are transmitted from person to person and to oneself because of germs that are on one's hands."
In the U.S. and other developed nations, Schaffner noted, people take hygiene products for granted. That's because they are everywhere. Soap is in public restrooms. There are also cleanser wipes at the entrances of grocery stores to sanitize shopping cart handles.
That's not the case in some other countries. Schaffner recalled visiting a hospital in the Middle East. Soap was in short supply. Patients had to provide their own or go without.
Having access to soap could disrupt the transmission of germs. That could save lives, the professor said.
"It's not a magic wand. But it's a very important element."
Clean the World has announced it was partnering with the similar Global Soap organization. They want to increase production, hygiene education and delivery.
The combined group now collects used soap from more than 4,000 hotels. The group says it has delivered some 25 million bars to 99 countries. That includes homeless shelters in the U.S.
The process is fairly simple. The collected soap is shredded. Then it is run through machines. That removes bacteria. After that, the soap is pressed into new bars. Then it is packaged for delivery.
The group uses local aid and nongovernmental organizations to help with distribution and ongoing education. The group also sends its own teams into rural communities around the world. They hand-deliver hygiene products. They also teach residents about the importance of keeping clean.
"A lot of people are surprised to find out that one of the most effective ways to prevent many deaths is actually just hand-washing with soap," said Global Soap's director Sam Stephens.
"We're hoping to make a difference."
Critical thinking challenge: How can access to simple hygiene products, such as soap, prevent illness?
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