‘What is soap?’ This one question changed my life — and led to my founding the Sundara Fund. I was working in rural Thailand at a school for refugee children from Burma. I went to the restroom and when I came out to wash my hands, there was no soap. I asked the group of students clustered around me if they had any soap. Blank stares. One girl, about 13 years old, looked up at me and whispered, ‘What is soap?’
I didn’t know how to explain something so basic! Imagine a life without the smell of fresh clean hands! My jaw dropped and my mind was blown. I was meeting children who had lived their whole lives without something I had been taking for granted all my life.
Soap Saves Lives
Soap is so critical because beyond keeping us clean and smelling nice, it actually saves lives. Diarrhea and pneumonia are the biggest killers of children in the developing world, taking the lives of almost 3.5 million children each year. Yet, they don’t have to die: diarrhea and pneumonia are both PREVENTABLE.
How? Soap! It’s a low cost, low tech solution to preventing childhood deaths — more effective and cheaper than any vaccine. The most basic form of preventive medicine in the world. And yet, in this day and age, there are still millions of children who lack access to soap. Unilever estimates there are 70 million just in India alone. Can you imagine? 7 New York Cities full of people who have never used soap!
Empowering Women, Diverting Soap from Landfills
Meanwhile every year over a billion bars of soap go straight into landfills. The biggest culprit? The hospitality industry. We’ve all been to hotels that replace our bar soap daily or ditch the partially used soap left behind in showers. Have you ever stopped to think where those little bars wind up?
That’s where Sundara Fund comes in: we connect the waste to the need. We run sustainable soap recycling initiatives in India, Myanmar, and Uganda. We hire local slum women to collect bar soap waste from hotels, process it into new bars of hygienic soap, and distribute it to children in need, while teaching about the benefits of hand washing and basic hygiene.
Our operation involves a simple process that takes less than 10 minutes! Used bar soap that would otherwise be thrown into the trash is collected from our hotel partners. The soap is shaved down, cleaned with a chemical solution to ensure it does not contain any disease, and then compacted into a new bar that is donated by Diversey/Sealed Air. The soap is distributed to schools, health clinics, orphanages, and youth detention centers along with hygiene education for each child who receives soap, ensuring that these good habits stick.
To date, we have saved 25,600 kg of soap waste, made 67,800 new bars of soap, and taught 2,334 hygiene education classes—impacting 10,000 people (including 6,000 children).
Empowering Women with Fair Wage Jobs to Recycle Soap
Our hygiene ambassadors are given fair wage jobs that lift them out of poverty, the slum residents are provided with regular deliveries of sustainable soap and hygiene education, and we help the environment by diverting tons of waste from landfills.
Here’s a great example of how Sundara is positively affecting communities and the lives of its workers. Margaret Nalubega is Sundara’s oldest employee in Uganda. She cares for 2 of her children and 7 of her grandchildren, all in her own house that she has built out of cow dung, sticks, and mud. She also lost a finger to infection. Sundara saw in Margaret a willingness to work hard, promote health, and empower the community. In particular she loves distributing the recycled soap to her neighbors and teaching them about hygiene. “Maybe if I had learned these things earlier then my finger would still be here,” she wonders.
With her regular salary that she gets from recycling soap and working on the weekends at Bukompe camp as a hygiene ambassador, she has done something she always thought would have been impossible: she has been able to pay the school fees of all 7 of her grandchildren. At age 57, Margaret is breaking the cycle of poverty.
How You Can Keep Soap From the Landfill
- Do your homework. The next time you are searching for a hotel, find out if they have a soap-recycling initiative similar to Sundara’s. If they don’t, you can likely assume your barely used bar of soap will be thrown into the trash. Please consider leaving a note for housekeeping not to replace with a new bar.
- Spread the word. Teach your own children the importance of clean hands and hygiene education. Underscore how some children do not even know what soap is, so that they understand how privileged we are when we have access to this most basic form of medicine. Awareness of this issue is the first step towards making a real change.
- #ThinkTwice before you shop. Buy products from ethical soap companies like Soapbox, b.a.r.e. soaps and Lavender Court, which support our programs in India, Uganda, and Myanmar. Remember that your purchases have power — you can choose to do good even when you are buying household products.
- Donate. Sponsor a child to receive soap deliveries and hygiene education for just $30. It might be less than you spend for dinner tonight. Please consider supporting our work at the Sundara Fund here: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/sundarafund, and we promise to give you updates of the communities you are actively making healthier.
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