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One’s soap, another’s treasure

Published on 1st May 2017

Try to picture stacks of used soap, piled up on top of each other almost touching the ceiling. Fished in slimy, half-viscous slabs from bathtubs, floors and sink drains across Hong Kong hotels twice a month, these soap leavings arrive box after box in a warehouse, where volunteers like you fumble around to pick them up, scrape them clean and ready them for a new life. Disgusting, right?

 Wrong.

This is a regular sight every weekend in the warehouse of Kwai Hing, 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 head off to children in developing countries like the Philippines and Cambodia, and in some of China’s poorer provinces.

As during most of Soap Cycling’s weekly sessions, the volunteers sit around a large table loaded with baskets of soap bars ready for processing. Today, the organization’s human resource manager Anson Leung has forgone the gloves. Holding a soap bar in his bare hands, he casually pulls out a long strand of hair attached to the surface. “Soap is supposed to kill germs anyways,” he says with a shrug as he begins to scrape off the dirty surface of the soap bars laid out in front of him.

Soap Cycling also organizes large-scaled volunteering sessions through their annual activities. “Recently we had over 300 domestic helpers from the Domestic Helpers Empowerment Program come over to the campus and engage in the procedure,” says Leung, priding over the twenty four hundred kilograms of soap the participants were able to process that day.

Last year, the team collected twenty thousand 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 into the landfills.”

“We want to take these ‘waste’ and send them 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 corporates focus on providing drinkable water and building hygienic infrastructures. 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 underprivileged children,” Leung pauses for a second before he adds: “It’s like, you know, a sense of fulfillment.”

Once every two weeks, the group of students collects around two thousand kilograms of soap bars from hotels all over the city. “We are generally welcomed by the hotels to support whatever we are doing,” says Leung when asked about the cooperation that needs to go into the procedure of soap collection.

Soap Cycling had actually started out as an internship platform for the students in the University according to the 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. “My belief is that you have to be put into the position to fail,” he says, “before you can truly succeed.”

However, Bishop does not accept the role of the brain behind the soap cycling model. “I always tell my students ‘Good artists borrow, but great artists steal’,” he says as he breaks into a burst of mischievous laughter. “There are very, very few truly original ideas out there,” says Bishop, “but what you need to do, is to build up on these ideas yourself.” He had got the concept from a similar but large-scaled and heavily funded soap recycling company back at home in Georgia in the States.

Bishop traces back to the first two weeks of their initial feasibility study where the social corporate had received a positive feedback from sixty hotels here in Hong Kong. But there was still more to it. “We didn’t have a company, or a bank account, or a place, an office, nothing,” says Bishop, counting all of them out with his fingers. “Most importantly, we didn’t know how to recycle soap!”

He shares the motto he had followed religiously with his equally clueless students in their preliminary stage: “Don’t worry, be crappy.” Fast-forward to 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 as he raises his hand up, “we’re still crappy.”

Soap Cycling almost fully relies on donations and funding provided by corporates. Chow Tai Fook, one of the biggest jewellery makers in Hong Kong has donated a warehouse to the organization in Kwai Hing for their weekly soap scraping procedures. Ming Fai, a soap manufacturer in China, has also lent out one of their factories in Shenzhen for the group to expand their operations there as well. However, they still need to bear the costs for their third-party expenses such as the transportation fee for transferring the soap bars.

Soap Cycling is getting more support in the public eye day by day. However, the fate of a non-profit organization still cannot escape the risks of future obstacles and hindrances. “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 collection boxes of the soap bars arrive at the parking lot of the warehouse, Patrick Davis assists the volunteers to carry them into the elevator to get them ready to be weighed. “The students here are very smart,” the Soap Cycling Manager says, scooping out a handful of ground soap from the gray, metallic mixing machine, “but they have no world-wide working experience.” He believes they can learn more through hands-on activities instead of just taking a class, a course or a paper.

“Marketing is a bit of a challenge compared to the procedure where soap comes in, soap goes out,” he says. He wants to focus on encouraging the engagement of not only university students, but also the general public in their soap cycling volunteering platforms. “Like any other company management, we try to tailor our plans to students’ skills like proposal writing, collecting and creating content, and so on.”

Davis also strongly believes in recycling the ‘trash’ to save lives while cleaning the environment. “One third of childhood death under the age of five are caused by diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea, which could be prevented by simply hand-washing,” says Davis, letting a silence linger for a short while as if to let the fact sink in.

We may find the idea of picking stray hairs out of used soap bars revolting. But everyone, says Davis, can benefit by confronting together the waste we create together, and the horrible truths that lie right behind. “You’re literally saving lives just by taking some time to sterilize the trash from hotels which most throw away without much thinking,” he says. “And it also confronts you with the really wasteful nature of modern life, seeing your trash right in front of you.”