|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Mar. 15, 2010--Children in earthquake-devastated Haiti may already be washing their hands with Mickey Mouse soap from a Walt Disney World hotel.
The giant Disney resort recently signed on with Clean the World Foundation Inc., a year-old nonprofit group that hopes to improve hygiene in impoverished parts of the world by recycling soap and shampoo from tens of thousands of local and out-of-state hotel rooms.
The nonprofit group collects the used toiletries, which hotels previously tossed in the trash, sanitizes them and then redistributes them to people in need around the world.
The addition of Disney's 28,000 hotel and time-share rooms is a huge boost for the Orlando-based charity, which says it was already recycling soap and shampoo from hotels in 19 states with a combined 44,000 rooms.
The group's goal is to reduce the number of deaths worldwide due to hygiene-related illnesses while reducing waste here in the U.S.
"It's about saving lives. It's about saving our planet," said Shawn Seipler, Clean the World's co-founder and executive director.
Much of the group's used soap comes from hotels and time-share resorts in Central Florida, including the Peabody Orlando, Westgate Resorts, the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld and the Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort.
Housekeepers collect the partly used soap and deposit it in bins collected by Clean the World, which takes it to the group's facility off Sand Lake Road for sanitizing and repackaging.
"When we heard about the program, it was like a no-brainer," said Ron McAnaugh, hotel manager at Marriott's Orlando World Center, which last year donated about 3,350 pounds of material. "This is stuff that we're throwing away that, in turn, can have a great second life."
Disney said the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti was a catalyst for its involvement with Clean the World.
"Clean the World complements our vision of doing what's right for the environment and enhancing the lives of children in need around the world," Disney spokeswoman Kathleen Prihoda said. "There's been a lot of excitement around it."
Disney would not discuss financial details of the partnership, but based on the giant resort's room count, the program could cost Disney $14,000 a month. To cover its processing costs, Clean The World charges Florida hotels a tax-deductible monthly fee of 50 cents a room, a cost partly offset by savings the hotels realize in their waste-disposal fees.
At the charity's south Orange County warehouse, a mainly volunteer work force processes 8,000 to 10,000 bars of soap a day. The bars are sorted, scrubbed by hand and then bathed in a bleach solution before being placed in a restaurant-grade steamer. The steam permeates the soap to kill any E. coli, salmonella or staph. The bars are then wrapped, boxed and, through various partnerships, shipped for distribution to countries such as Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala and Lesotho.
Clean the World also distributes its repackaged products in the U.S. through partnerships with various shelters for the homeless.
To ensure its sanitation process worked, Clean the World hired a local lab to inject test soap with pathogens before running it through the process.
"We got a 100 percent clean bill of health," Seipler said.
Seipler got the idea for Clean the World while traveling as vice president of sales for Channel Intelligence, an e-commerce company based in Celebration. On the road 130 days each year, he began wondering how he could spend more time at home with his wife and four children.
"It just started for me sitting in a hotel room asking the question, 'What happens with the soap and shampoo?' "
He and Clean the World co-founder Paul Till, a colleague at Channel Intelligence, at first wanted to start a business. But they decided there would be little commercial interest in lightly used bars of soap and half-empty minibottles of shampoo.
So they decided to create a nonprofit to fight disease in developing countries by improving people's access to hand soap.
"There's almost nothing that cannot be improved with soap and water," said Bernardo Ramirez, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Central Florida.
Still, in parts of the world where clean water is still scarce or non-existent, free soap may not be enough, added Ramirez, who said it is important that such a program focus on education as well as free distribution.
"They have conditions that soap alone cannot solve," Ramirez said of living conditions in many parts of the world. "If it [the program] doesn't trigger mechanisms for people to learn and improve their health habits ... it probably won't be a very sustainable effort."
Clean the World said it works with groups such as World Vision and Harvest Time International, which already have hygiene programs in place.
"Part and parcel with the soap is, absolutely, education," Seipler said. In Haiti, he noted, children sing songs about washing their hands -- but because just three bars of soap can cost more than a day's wages, they did not have the soap to accompany the songs.
Clean the World already has a second facility in Washington and hopes to open processing centers similar to the Orlando warehouse in 12 major hotel markets across the country, including New York, Chicago and Las Vegas.
Local hotel managers say the program has proved to be particularly popular with housekeepers, because in many cases the recycled soap is headed for their native countries. At the Orlando World Center Marriott, for example, about 75 percent of the housekeeping staff is of Haitian descent.
The Peabody Orlando said a significant portion of its staff is also from Haiti, giving those employees a personal connection that has helped jump-start the hotel's broader recycling programs.
"If I had started with cardboard to kick off our recycling efforts, I don't know if I would have gotten the same overwhelming response," said Marshall Kelberman, director of the Peabody's rooms division. "Because they can feel the emotional part of the amenities that are going to Africa and Haiti, ... it helps them when we start to talk about other recycling efforts."
Sara K. Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5664.
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