T-shirts and Soap

Here’s the introduction to a rather nice reader’s story that Andrew Tobias put on his blog:

This past Christmas Day I was home cooking for my husband when I saw a news report about a grass roots organization operating here in Atlanta, the Global Soap Project. It was founded by a man named Derreck Kayongo. He and his family fled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s terror in the late 70’s. Derreck has since become successful. He was staying in a hotel when he saw a housekeeper throw away a bar of soap that had been used once. He saw an opportunity. The Global Soap Project has organized literally dozens of hotels, first in Atlanta, then around the country, to save those used bars of soap. They are shipped to a warehouse here, sanitized, and formed into new bars of soap. They are then shipped to refugee camps and to displaced people around the world.

It does sound like a useful and humanitarian idea, taking unused soap and repurposing it to help people unable to afford soap. And I was heartened to read that the Global Soap Project’s founder cares that he does not supply the black market, which he does by “only [using] volunteer organizations that he trusts, like Amnesty International”. Then I thought, I’d trust an organization like World Vision … which has once again aroused the ire of some aid watchers by shipping 100,000 “wrong” Superbowl Winner T-shirts to poor countries as gifts-in-kind. The arguments against the T-shirts are simple: they’re not needed, they’re not cost-effective, and they can perpetuate dependence and stifle local economic initiatives.

While World Vision struggles to respond, I wondered whether the same might be true of soap. Is there a soap shortage in refugee camps and the like? I don’t know, although I imagine it saves the aid organisations money to be given free soap. Is it cost effective? Again, I don’t know, but I imagine it might be. Soap isn’t so hard to make, although some of the chemicals can be a mite dangerous. A mobile soap factory, that can go where soap is needed? Interesting idea. Does free soap stifle local entrepreneurial activities. I reckon it might do. See above.

What I like most about the Global Soap Project is that it takes a waste product and turns it into something useful and valuable. And I do hate it when I am staying at a hotel and yesterday’s open soap has been replaced by this morning’s struggle to open a new little package. Knowing that the old soap had gone to a new home might make that more bearable. One question. Is this part of the story really necessary?

To sanitize the soap, we scrape off the outside with a potato peeler.

Try Googling “soap transmission bacteria”. Not all that helpful. But there was one study that showed that washing with bacterially contaminated bulk soap “resulted in a 10-fold increase in the number of gram-negative bacteria … on the hands of students and staff in an elementary school” and that “[h]ands washed with contaminated bulk soap transferred a significantly higher number of gram-negative bacteria to touched surfaces compared to hands washed with soap from a sealed refill”.

The study was by people from a manufacturer of sealed soap refill systems, which avoid the problem of bacterial contamination.

So I’m asking; could the Global Soap Project safely improve the output of its volunteers if they didn’t first have to peel the soap?


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