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July 25, 2016

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How used soap, shampoo from Las Vegas hotels can save lives

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Sam Morris

Mike Brennan, left, and James Benson sort hotel shampoo, lotion and conditioner bottles at Clean the World Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011.

Recycling soap

Mike Brennan, left, and James Benson sort hotel shampoo, lotion and conditioner bottles at Clean the World Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011. Launch slideshow »

It’s a scene that plays out thousands of times a day on the Strip: Tourists rip open hotel room soaps, pop open complimentary bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash, and use them once or twice. Then they leave, and the amenities sit half-full on a bathroom counter.

Not so long ago, those soaps and shampoos were thrown away. Now, they’re being recycled to help save lives.

A number of Strip resorts have partnered with the nonprofit group Clean the World to collect partially used hotel room toiletries and recycle them for use by people in need in the United States and abroad. Recycled soaps and shampoos have been sent to Las Vegas homes for pregnant teens, homeless shelters in New York City, Houston and Chicago and impoverished villages overseas. They have helped hundreds of thousands of Haitians struggling in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and, more recently, scores of Filipinos left homeless by typhoons and flooding.

The program works like this: Housekeepers gather used soaps, shampoos and body washes and drop them off at central collection bins set up at each property. Once the bins are filled (usually after about a week and with more than 10,000 products), a Clean the World driver picks them up and delivers them to a recycling center on South Valley View Boulevard.

Las Vegas is Clean the World’s Western distribution hub, an unsurprising fact given the city is the hotel capital of the world and home to about 150,000 hotel rooms.

For almost a year, the local Clean the World recycling center has been housed in a small warehouse in an industrial park behind the Strip. Four-foot-tall cardboard boxes scribbled with resort names — Rio, Caesars, Wynn, Venetian — line its walls and overflow with millions of bars of soaps sorted by shape and color. The scent of perfume is unmistakable. Three workers, all men who were homeless at one time, collect, sort and clean the goods.

In a few months, the facility will move. Early next year, Clean the World plans to relocate to a bigger warehouse down the street, with more technologically advanced equipment and space to grow. The expansion was made possible by a $150,000 donation from the Caesars Foundation. Since 2010, Caesars has committed $250,000 to the cause. The casino company is also the largest contributor of soaps and shampoos to Clean the World, which obtains its operational funding through donations and grants.

“It’s just incredible to see what simple day-to-day actions can do to save someone’s life,” said Gwen Migita, Caesars Entertainment’s corporate director of sustainability and community engagement.

At the recycling plant, staff and volunteers take potato peelers to the tiny bars of soap and scrape them to remove dirt, hair and other debris. The bars are doused with a bleach-and-water mixture, then cooked at 280 degrees for two minutes to kill any bacteria. They are sent through the equivalent of a giant meat grinder to chop them up into small granules, then pass through a press and cutter. The result is sanitized soap.

The Las Vegas facility has processed 30,976 pounds of soap and 18,564 pounds of bottled amenities from the Strip since the first of the year. The plant also collects thousands of additional tons of hygiene products from hotels across the Western United States.

The local warehouse is one of four Clean the World facilities in North America. The others are in Vancouver, Toronto and Orlando.

“We take so much for granted here in America,” said Bob McAbee, the group’s Las Vegas facility manager. “Many people have $1 and have to choose whether to eat or bathe. It’s a tough choice to make. We want to eliminate that choice.”

Five million people, mostly women and children, die every year because of improper hygiene, according to Clean the World. Simple hand washing with soap can reduce that number by millions since it helps prevent diarrheal diseases and acute respiratory infection, two of the top killers.

Since it was founded in 2009, Clean the World has distributed almost 11 million bars of soap to people in more than 45 countries. The effort also has kept 1.2 million pounds of trash out of landfills.

“The response from people is just amazing,” McAbee said. “The housekeepers are tickled because in many cases they are helping their home countries. Hotel guests want to help, and the properties are just jumping on board.”

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