Turning Trash into Treasure: The Eco-Soap Bank Story

During a 2014 volunteer trip building fishponds in rural Cambodia, University of Pittsburgh student Samir Lakhani witnessed a sight that would change his life: a young mother bathing her infant with toxic laundry detergent instead of soap. When he asked why, her response shook him - “Soap is too expensive.” Shocked to the core, Lakhani learned that only 1% of households in developing countries have access to basic hygiene products like soap. This lack of access contributes to the spread of preventable diseases and infections, causing the deaths of countless children. This encounter stirred something in Lakhani. He was determined to find a solution.

(Earth company)

At the same time, Lakhani realized the massive amounts of barely used hotel soap being discarded as waste in nearby Siem Reap, a bustling tourist hotspot drawing millions of visitors each year to admire the Angkor Wat temples. A lightbulb went off - what if he could collect this leftover soap and recycle it into affordable bars for those most in need?

And so, the inspiration for Eco-Soap Bank was born. This remarkable initiative tackles two pressing global issues at once by creatively linking environmental sustainability and public health impacts. Since 2014, Eco-Soap Bank has been collecting leftover soaps from hotels which would otherwise end up in overflowing landfills. After a thorough cleaning and remoulding process, the recycled “eco-soaps” are distributed for free to impoverished communities in collaboration with NGOs. This offers rural villages their first reliable supply of soap, preventing diseases at the source through improved hygiene and sanitation.

But the story doesn’t end there. A key focus of Eco-Soap Bank is women’s empowerment and generating local livelihoods. Across Cambodia, over 150 women are employed to collect, recycle, and distribute the soap within their own communities. They also receive vocational training and English lessons. For women who previously struggled with poverty and lack of opportunity, this provides economic stability and elevated social status as community health ambassadors.

Since 2014, Eco-Soap Bank’s has expanded across 10 countries, supplying over 26 million soap bars to more than 3 million people. Beyond the numbers, each bar of eco-soap represents human stories of health protected, lives uplifted, and the vision of an ethical, sustainable future.

Lack of handwashing causes over 1.6 million deaths annually, mostly in developing nations. Eco-Soap Bank’s recycled bars have decreased diarrhoea and infections, keeping children healthier. Teachers integrate hygiene lessons in schools receiving soap, cultivating lifelong knowledge.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing though. When COVID-19 decimated tourism, soap donations from hotels dried up overnight. Lakhani had to scramble to find new suppliers, teaming up with soap manufacturers to make use of excess factory soap. And even in normal times, it’s a constant battle to meet the towering demand. Nearly 3 billion people worldwide lack adequate facilities for handwashing—a shocking reality that keeps Lakhani driven in his mission.

But challenges only seem to strengthen Lakhani’s resolve. Named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, Lakhani dreams of the day when no child suffers from a lack of soap. Eco-Soap Bank began in Cambodia but has expanded across Asia and Africa. He urges young people not to wait for someone else to solve the world’s problems. At just 24 years old when he founded Eco-Soap Bank, Lakhani is living proof that you’re never too young to make an impact. All it takes is an idea, some hustle, and the willingness to get your hands dirty for the greater good.

So next time you’re scrubbing up, take a moment to appreciate that simple bar of soap. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to hardship when it doesn’t affect us directly. But changemakers like Lakhani see boundaries as an invitation rather than a restriction. So, what bright idea will you bring to life today? Our world needs more trailblazers who transform the “impossible” into opportunity—one bubbly lather at a time.

Written By:

Saroj Sharma

Saroj has an experience of over 9 years working in the development sector as a social worker, educator and an independent researcher. She has worked extensively with the marginalized community in India and Nepal. She is an avid reader and takes a profound interest in writing, preferably human stories.

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