Stacks of used soap, piled up on top of each other, almost touch the ceiling. Fished in slimy, half-viscous slabs from bathtubs, floors and sink drains in Hong Kong hotels twice a month, these soap leavings arrive box after box in a warehouse, where volunteers fumble around to pick them up, scrape them clean and ready them for a new life. Disgusting, right?
This is a regular sight every weekend in the warehouse where student interns from the University of Hong Kong, along with other local volunteers, come together to join local organization Soap Cycling in giving old soap a new life—cleaning up the environment and saving lives in the process.
After processing, renewed bars of soap from Soap Cycling go to children in developing countries like the Philippines and Cambodia, and in some of China’s poorer provinces.
As in most of Soap Cycling’s weekly sessions, the volunteers sit around a large table laden with baskets of soap bars ready for processing. Today, the organization’s human resources manager, Anson Leung, has forgone the gloves. Holding a soap bar in his bare hands, he casually pulls out a long strand of hair. “Soap is supposed to kill germs anyway,” he says with a shrug.
Soap Cycling also organizes large-scale volunteering sessions. “Recently we had over 300 domestic helpers from the Domestic Helpers Empowerment Programme come over to the campus and engage in the procedure,” says Leung, pleased with the 2,400 kilograms of soap the participants were able to process that day.
Last year, the team collected 20,000 kilograms of soap from hotels in Hong Kong alone, soap that would otherwise have added to the city’s waste. “If we don’t process this waste,” says Leung, “it will just be dumped in landfills.”
“We want to take this ‘waste’ and send it to those who need it, which could save their lives,” says Leung. He points out Soap Cycling’s role in what he calls the ‘triangle of the hygienic environment’.
Other social enterprises focus on providing drinkable water and building hygienic infrastructure. As for the distribution of sanitary products, that’s where the team steps in. “The task is tiring,” he admits, “but you know that your effort will really contribute to helping those children,”
Soap Cycling actually started as an internship platform for HKU students, according to organizer David Bishop. “As an educator, I was trying to find a way to provide leadership opportunities for my students here in Asia,” says the business faculty professor.
However, Bishop says he did not invent the soap cycling model. “I always tell my students ‘Good artists borrow, but great artists steal’,” he says with a burst of mischievous laughter. He got the concept from a similar soap recycling company back in the States.
Bishop recalls the first two weeks of their feasibility study, when they had received positive feedback from 60 Hong Kong hotels. But there was still more to do. “We didn’t have a company, or a bank account, or a place, an office, nothing,” says Bishop. “Most importantly, we didn’t know how to recycle soap!”
He shares the motto he followed religiously with his equally clueless students in their preliminary stage: “Don’t worry, be crappy.” Six months later, he found his entire office filled with mountains of soap bars sent by the hotels, with only one clear pathway from the door to his desk. “Well eventually, all the pieces started to fit in together, and by the way,” he says, “we’re still crappy.”
Soap Cycling relies almost entirely on donations from companies. Chow Tai Fook, the jewellers, have donated a warehouse in Kwai Hing for the weekly soap scraping sessions. Ming Fai, a soap manufacturer in China, has lent one of their factories in Shenzhen for the group to expand their operations there as well.
However, they still need to bear the cost of other expenses, such as the transport for the soap bars.
Soap Cycling is getting more support day by day, but a non-profit organization always faces an uncertain future. “Unfortunately, I feel like that’s the part most people get hung up on,” says Bishop, “but we are way bigger than I had ever imagined we would be, so I am already very proud of these students.”
As the boxes of soap arrive at the warehouse, Patrick Davis helps the volunteers to carry them into the lift. “The students here are very smart,” the Soap Cycling Manager says, scooping out a handful of ground soap from the mixing machine, “but they have no world-wide working experience.”
Davis strongly believes in recycling ‘trash’ to save lives while cleaning the environment. “One third of childhood deaths under the age of five are caused by diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea, which could be prevented by simple hand-washing,” he says.