by Trang Chu Minh on

Soap is one of the most cost-effective and life-saving tools ever invented, yet every year millions of bars of soap are discarded.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic also brought to light the devastating impact of poor sanitation and hygiene, as Singapore has grappled with the rapid spread of the virus in crowded dormitories for migrant workers.

Poor living conditions for migrant workers

With a total population of close to 6 million, Singapore is home to 1.2 million foreign workers who make up a significant proportion of the country’s workforce, especially in construction, manual labor and housekeeping.

Of these, around 200,000 live in the city-state’s 43 dormitories, according to Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo.

There is no limitation on the maximum number of beds allowed per room, and migrant workers would sleep just a feet from one another in crowded rooms of 10 to 20 people. Dorm residents eat in common areas, and share toilet and shower facilities – the requirement is currently only one bathroom for every 15 beds.

Although the government has since announced measures to address these dismal living conditions, it’s no surprise that migrant workers make up more than 90% of Singapore’s coronavirus cases.

Limited access to soap and water

The ability to wash your hands with water and soap, a critical – and basic – measure of prevention against the virus has been reportedly out of reach for many of the city-state’s migrant communities.

A survey conducted in April by migrant worker rights charity HOME found that more than half of the foreign workers interviewed felt that they did not have adequate access to water, soap and hand sanitizer.

Hospitality waste on the rise

In contrast, half-used toiletries from hotel rooms encased in plastic bottles generate huge amounts of waste every year.

The National Environment Agency reported that hotels with more than 200 rooms in Singapore reached an average recycling rate of only 7.7% in 2018, meaning that most of these single-use toiletries end up landfilled and incinerated.

Asia’s first soap recycling social enterprise

Soap Cycling aims to tackle these challenges by salvaging lightly used soap from hotels, and working with charity partners to distribute them to communities in need.

Started off as a university program in 2011 to give students a meaningful social innovation experience, Soap Cycling has quickly grown into Asia’s first and largest soap recycling social enterprise.

The social venture works towards supporting the most vulnerable segments of society in each of the markets it is operating in, including the elderly, migrant workers, low-income families or rough sleepers.

“Singaporeans don’t think much of soap. It is an everyday item that everyone here can afford, but in many parts of the Philippines, even a basic bar can be expensive,” Nina Rotelo, a Filipina who works as a domestic worker in Singapore, tells The Pride. She regularly sends back clothes and food packages to her village, and on her last visit, distributed soap from Soap Cycling.

She adds: “There are many poorer families that still use laundry soap to shower and wash their hair. It is very bad for the skin and causes health problems in the long run. But this is the sad reality.”

Upcycling soap for hotel partners

“Our job is to provide a hands-on experience to confront people with the ‘hidden waste’ that is produced by the travel industry while also inspiring our youth to think of creative ways to repurpose wasted goods,” explains Pat Davis, former General Manager of Soap Cycling HK, and current Managing Director of Soap Cycling Singapore.

Soap Cycling funds its operations from upcycling soap for its hospitality partners for a fee, and by conducting volunteering and team-building activities for companies.

In Singapore, it has so far partnered with 14 hotel brands, and all the revenue generated from these corporate partnerships is reinvested into funding the distribution and shipping of the upcycled soap.

Soap scraping is done almost entirely by social enterprise's volunteers
Image source: Soap Cycling

Soap scraping is done almost entirely by volunteers, and the Singapore chapter also regularly engages injured migrant workers whilst they wait for their work injury cases to be resolved. It hopes to eventually create a paid work program for people with special needs who might otherwise struggle to find employment.

Responding to COVID-19

With the social enterprise’s CSR activities for corporates taking a hit as the coronavirus took hold, Soap Cycling focused its COVID-19 response on reaching out to those worst affected by the pandemic.

The team has worked relentlessly to distribute soap, mask and hand sanitizers to migrant workers and low-income households in Singapore; street cleaners, students and vulnerable communities in HK; children in schools and remote villages in China; vulnerable families in the Philippines; and residents of informal settlements in Myanmar.

Beneficiaries of social enterprise Soap Cycling amidst Covid-19
Image source: Soap Cycling

“The COVID crisis has evidently brought soap back into the conversation on hygiene and health – it’s a life-saving resource that many take for granted until it takes a pandemic to bring that to light,” Jacqueline Tan, Soap Cycling Singapore’s Partnership Manager tells The Pride.

Social and environmental impact

In the first five months of 2020 alone, Soap Cycling has distributed soap and hygiene kits to over 8,000 migrant workers and low-income households in Singapore. Across Asia, the social enterprise has saved 4,601 kg worth of soap, the equivalent of 140,000 bars, from ending up in landfills.

Social enterprise saved many soap bars by recycling them
Image source: Soap Cycling
Social enterprise helped many migrant workers and low-income families in Singapore
Image source: Soap Cycling
Covid-19 social enterprise Soap Cycling's response infographic
Image source: Soap Cycling

When asked about the human impact of their work, Tan describes working with a community group in the Philippines to distribute soap to people who live in cemeteries in North Manila.

“When their request first came in, it dawned on me that the lack of decent soap is an everyday reality for the urban poor, not just those in more rural and remote areas. The cemetery dwellers do not use soap on a daily basis (it’s unaffordable), and if they did buy soap, it’s usually laundry bars or powder for bathing, washing clothes and utensils. It’s heartbreaking, and also a travesty!”

Soap Cycling also works with water, sanitation and hygiene (known collectively as WASH) charities and student groups to donate soap to rural communities in Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal and India.

Most recently, amidst heightened fear of the coronavirus, the Singapore chapter has responded to an urgent appeal to provide 600 bars of soap to a group of Hazara refugees in Pekanbaru, Indonesia.

Expanding across Asia

To more effectively scale its impact, the social venture aims to develop a curriculum that others keen to introduce soap recycling or other hygiene solutions elsewhere in the region could adopt, and has also published a guide to soap recycling.

“Soap recycling is a relatively new concept in Singapore and in Asia, so a lot of awareness-raising still needs to be done on soap wastage and how lightly used soap is safe for use,” adds Tan.

From its original base in Hong Kong, Soap Cycling has in the last five years opened its doors in Singapore, Shenzhen in China and Yangon in Myanmar, with plans underway to expand to Iloilo in the Philippines, Hyderabad in India, and Bangkok in Thailand.

Scaling beyond soap recycling

Soap Cycling Singapore also plans to extend its upcycling operations to cover liquid amenities, following in the footsteps of their Hong Kong operations, as well as discarded hotel linen, by repurposing them into bags, for instance.

“With the coronavirus situation forcing a reset of the economy, it’s a great opportunity for government, business, investors, and consumers to reassess their values,” concludes Davis. “If consumers en masse truly start to support companies that are producing goods sustainably (and are willing to pay more for it), then it will force the entire business community to change their practices.”

Like many other charities and social enterprises, Soap Cycling has struggled with a slump in demand for corporate volunteering and CSR events in light of COVID-19. Keen to help? Contribute to Soap Cycling’s fundraising appeal (HK | Singapore | Myanmar | Philippines)