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  • Brittany Truong

Soap Recycling: What, How, and Why?

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Image credit: Priscilla Welch 2018

This post is a follow-up from the last blog. Read the Introduction to the Guide to Soap Recycling here:

What is soap recycling?

In the developed world, we can easily take soap for granted; we don’t usually stop to think where it has come from, and what potential impact it can have.

Soap recycling is the process of re-purposing lightly used or discarded hotel amenities such as soap bars and liquid amenities. The re-purposed soap is then generally sent to communities that do not have access to sanitation.

How do we go about recycling soap?

Recycling soap can be broken down into two different processes: recycling soap bars and recycling liquid amenities.

Soap bars

There are two main ways to recycle soap bars: scraping the outer layer of the original bar, or creating a new bar by scraping, chopping and re-casting the soap. Creating a new bar can be done by hand by individuals or by using more complex machinery.

Liquid amenities

Liquid amenities include shower gel, shampoo, conditioner and lotion. They can be re-purposed either by sorting, disinfecting and topping up the liquid, or by combining and disinfecting several bottles to make large bottles.

These processes can be more complicated than recycling soap bars, as you must work with multiple different types of amenities. As a result, you end up with more plastic which you will then have to deal with - preferably by recycling.

Attitudes towards recycled soap

Despite the potential benefits, many people in general have a negative attitude towards recycled soap, believing that it is unclean and still contain bacteria. This is what we call the ‘ick factor’. 50% of Americans surveyed by the research firm Mintel believe that bar soap is covered in germs after use.

One of the easiest ways to counteract negative attitudes towards re-processed soap is to help them understand how it actually works. In the developed world, we are taught from a young age that soap gets rid of germs, and that we should use it regularly. But few actually understand the science behind it.

So how does soap work?

The scientific explanation

Soap is made of a chain of molecules that has two major halves. One end of the chain is hydrophobic, meaning it repels water, and lipophilic, meaning attracted to fats. The other end of the molecule is exactly the opposite: hydrophilic (attracted to water) and lipophobic (repels fats). Put these two halves together, and you have one of mankind’s greatest inventions: soap. Most people are under the impression that soap ‘sterilises’ your hands by killing the bacteria and viruses on your skin. However, this is not precisely true. Germs and dirt cling to the oils and fat on your hands. Soap molecules then attach themselves to these oils and fats, and when you run your hands under water, they attach to the water molecules, pulling the oils off your skin and any bacteria they harbour with them.

How does this relate to recycled soap bars?

It tells us that it really doesn’t matter what is on the soap bar: when you use soap properly, applying it to your skin thoroughly and rubbing vigorously, the oils will be removed no matter what, leaving your hands clean and bacteria free.

Why would we recycle soap anyway?

Why is soap recycling important? There are four main reasons why we believe it should be supported.

WHY #1: Environmental Impact

Did you know that most of the soap bars you see in hotel bathrooms end up in the landfill? According to Accor, a Scandic hotel chain, hotel guests use only 15% of the soaps, shampoos and conditioners found in the room, with the majority thrown away — some even unused and in their original packaging. Approximately 2.6 million bars of soap are thrown away in the U.S., leading to an annual loss of a billion soap bars. Considering that the US accounts for less than 30 percent of the 15.7 million hotel rooms worldwide, the global loss each year is staggering. Recycling soap helps prevent this wastage.

WHY #2: Hygiene & Health

Pneumonia and diarrhoeal diseases are the #1 leading cause of death among children between the age of 0 and 5, killing more children each year than HIV, malaria, and most other diseases combined. Yet most of these deaths are preventable: if all children simply washed their hands with soap at the right time, nearly half of these deaths would be eliminated! That’s why soap is one of the most effective and simplest ways of preventing premature death among children. In the developed world, soap is cheap. Here in Hong Kong, you can buy a bar for less than HKD15. But in many developing countries, it is prohibitively expensive. Soap recycling is a way to get soap that would otherwise end up in the landfill into the hands of those who need it the most – and can afford it the least.

WHY #3: Job Creation

Jobs can be created in different ways, through part time or full-time employment, in developing or developed countries, and in different areas such a processing, volunteer coordination, and even management. Many Soap Recycling organisations operate as WISE programs, so it is important to understand how they operate. WISE is an acronym for Work Integration Social Enterprise. It is a type of social enterprise which aims to provide employment, training, and ultimately re-integration into the workplace for groups of people generally excluded from the labor market. The focus of WISE programs is often on groups of low-qualified, disadvantaged, or under-employed people, such as mothers, the elderly, and disabled.

WHY #4: Youth Empowerment

Under good management, the process of recycling soap and the tasks and processes that go into it can lend itself to allowing students and young people to be involved in important managerial and operational experiences. Soap Cycling started as an opportunity for University students to have real world experience prior to graduation, and has given over 220 student internship opportunities since its inception in 2012.


All information is taken from Soap Cycling’s Complete Guide to Soap Recycling.


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