Behind the scenes of running a soap recycling site

Behind the scenes of running a soap recycling site

As many of you know, every purchase gives back. One of our favorite non profit initiatives is supporting Sundara by helping fund a portion of the operations behind the Kalwa Soap Recycling Site. We met Sundara on Instagram (hello 21st century!) and really loved their vision, enthusiasm and grit. It's the main reason why we love working with them. They do alot, and we wanted to give you a peek into what it takes (efforts, partners, funds) to run just a single soap recycling workshop.

Below is a Q&A session with Michelle and Audrey of Sundara:

It takes a lot of people and resources to fund just one soap recycling site. How many partners are needed to run just one workshop?

It really takes a village. Here's brief snapshot of what needs to be done to run a single soap recycling site successfully:

Finding strong local NGOs to partner with is crucial to our success. This helps ensure we are invited into the community and that we're never imposing ourselves or our assumptions. It allows us to better understand the best ways to adapt our operations based on the specific needs of that community. It gives us a controlled distribution area, which is critical to our success. For example, we need to know that 50 bars will be going to X school on Y date. Our partner NGOs are often already working with women/have connections to women in need of employment for us to hire.

Hotels to partner with and form long lasting relationships with. Without soap we cannot operate. This is harder than it sounds because there's usually always initial enthusiasm and support, but it wanes after the first meeting or when management changes.

Reliable drivers to help us collect the soap. Ola is a local transportation service (similar to Uber) that our Project Officer uses to book transportation for soap collections. We hire the drivers for a few hours at a time to drive around central Mumbai, picking up soap from all our hotel partners.

Funding partners in India and the USA to sustain all overhead and operational expenses. This includes local hotels in India, foundations and socially conscious businesses such as b.a.r.e. soaps

A long-term landlord we can rent our workshop space from. The space must be within the community that we distribute soap to (within the tribal villages and slums themselves).  It is crucial to our operation that the women do not have to commute long distances to reach work. 


We recently discussed expanding our initiatives to a new site in Bangalore. In fact, you even sent someone on the ground to get things started but it's taking longer than expected. Can you explain what are the steps that are needed to open up a soap recycling workshop?

We first need to ensure that we have enough hotel partners to generate a steady and sufficient supply of used soap. Early on, we had an incident where we had all of the women in place ready to recycle soap but there wasn't enough soap from the hotels!

Connections are more effective when made in person. Hotel partnerships require a thorough follow-up. The initial response may be positive but we often experience delays in getting them to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) as the whole hotel management team need to be consulted, and we need to make sure their concerns and questions are answered. Plus, hotel staff have other priorities and may need a few reminders before getting the MOU signed (which needs to be signed before initiating collections). Hotels sometimes require certificates of registration of the organization + lab certificates certifying that are soaps are tested and are pathogen-free.

Then, we need to setup a space that is clean and has proper water access and drainage. There needs to be sufficient ventilation and lighting and with latrine access for the staff (spaces often require repairs before the actual set-up). We need to coordinate the logistics necessary for the collection of used soaps and their transportation to the centre. On top of that, we need to ensure that they are cost-effective and feasible. In addition to preparing the physical space, we need to locally purchase materials and furniture for the initial setup

The next step is to find local staff to hire, most often found by local connections or recommendations from other local organizations. The staff needs approximately one month of training to get familiar with the soap recycling process (for work centre staff) or delivering the hygiene education sessions (for hygiene angels).

The Kalwa site is flourishing and there is no turnover. What is needed to maintain a "well-oiled machine?"

A good way to limit the turnover is by a good candidate-selection process. The candidate-selection process usually involves 6-10 women who come and "try out" the soap-recycling process. This way, our office staff can informally interview candidates, see if they enjoy the soap recycling process, observe if they get along, and discuss if they would see themselves doing this 5 days a week.

It’s also important to:

    Provide constant feedback. Our local Director is constantly in communication via telephone in addition to scheduled and un-scheduled site visits. The unscheduled visits are important as it allows how our operation runs on a daily basis when not visitors are expected. Providing regular feedback allows our employees to constantly improve themselves and continue to learn new skills/ways of becoming more efficient.

    Ensure our workshops are close to where our Hygiene Ambassadors (HAs) live. We rent our workshop space right within the communities in which they live. Most Indians push through a 2-3 hour commute each day by train, which is completely exhausting, dangerous, and takes time away from them caring for their families.

    Provide new and exciting opportunities for development. In order to ensure that our HAs are constantly engaged and developing their literacy and confidence, we like to engage them with our hotel partners as often as we can doing things like picking up soap, or conducting presentations, receiving awards etc. 

    Team appreciation nights & events. For example, our Director Kenneth planned an appreciation day on a beach in Palghar this past February, where HA’s from all our locations gathered to celebrate their hard work and all that they do for their communities. This is important in creating a sense of unity across Pune, Mumbai, Ashte, and Palghar. It allows the women to remember they are part of a large Sundara family.


    What is the most common problem that you face when it comes to running a soap recycling workshop?

    Securing steady funds to cover the recurring costs required to pay for the overhead expenses within the US and India. It’s also challenging to maintain continuous engagement from hotel partners to ensure steady collections. One other challenge arises when a hotel HR management team changes, which sometimes leads to decreased soap collections

    Do you have any stories of "things gone wrong"?

    Regular supervisions and reinforcement are crucial. One time, the newly trained Hygiene Angels had just finished giving their education session, where they reinforce the importance of hand washing before eating. We have the practice of giving out chikki snacks (local nutritious snacks) to children along with the soap distributions. They used to be individually wrapped but we have recently switched to multiple snacks in one big bag. The regular sequence is normally the initial hand hygiene education session, distribution of soaps + snacks, then finally the children go out of the classroom to practice washing their hands. Out of habit, the Hygiene Angels distributed the chikki snacks along with the soaps, without noticing that the children would touch the snacks directly with their unwashed hands. Thankfully, feedback was provided by the coordination team and the sequence was adapted (soaps given before hand washing practice, but snacks to be given only after hands are washed). This points out the importance of reflecting and adapting to make sure that we really reinforce the proper messages at all times. 

    What is your favorite part about what you do?

    Seeing the excitement of the children when they wash their hands (and how they can't stop smelling their hands afterwards!). Hearing the amazing testimonials from members of the community and our local partners (medical clinics, teachers, local NGOs) about the impact Sundara has made on health and livelihood in their community. Plus, seeing how proudly the women we hire talk about their work and seeing them gain confidence and skills. Many of the women have gained leadership and public speaking skills.

    It's also amazing to know that we are making a long lasting, sustainable impact that actually changes habits. I love that aside from solely distributing soap, we are educating and changing mindsets on best practices for them to follow that will ensure they promote good hygiene for years to come. 


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