Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. You’re about to hear one more episode of our newest podcast, The Economics of Everyday Things. I hope you like it, and I hope you’ll stick around to the end to hear my conversation with Zachary Crockett, the host of the show. And if you want to hear more, just look for The Economics of Everyday Things in your favorite podcast player, and follow or subscribe. Okay, here’s Zachary.
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Back in 2009, Shawn Seipler asked himself a question that has occurred to pretty much everyone who’s ever stayed at a hotel. At the time, Seipler was a bit of a road dog. As a tech executive in sales, he spent around half his week traveling across the U.S.: Minneapolis, L.A., St. Louis … all over. This is a guy who racked up a lot of nights in hotel rooms. And on one of those trips, something caught his attention: that little bar of soap in the hotel bathroom.
Shawn SEIPLER: There’s a natural “I don’t want to waste things” in me. And as I would use a bar of soap one time, there was always a little nag inside of me that I’m leaving it here. So in that hotel room in Minneapolis, after a couple cocktails, that nag led to asking the question: I called the front desk and asked, “What happens to the soap when I’m done with it?”
From the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: used hotel soaps. You may not think twice about those little bars they leave out for you on the sink, but a lot of thought went into putting them there.
Chekitan DEV: Hotel amenities have evolved over the last 100 years.
Chekitan Dev is a professor at Cornell University’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration. And he says that the earliest hotels actually didn’t give you any soap. In fact, they didn’t even give you your own bathroom.
DEV: It’s an early 20th century innovation that hotel rooms came with a bath attached. In fact, Ellsworth Statler, the founder of the Statler hotel chain, often used to use the line, “A room and a bath for a dollar and a half.” So, soap became the very first amenity in the bathroom.
And, over time, soap became a default offering in many hotels.
DEV: The one thing I’ve learned about the hotel business in the 43 years I’ve been a student of the business is there’s a lot of copycat, you know, “They’re doing it, we better do it.”
These days, hotels stock their bathrooms with all kinds of toiletries — mini bottles of lotion, shampoos, conditioners. Recently, some big chains have replaced these single-use products with refillable dispensers. But at most hotels, you’ll still find a bar of soap next to the sink. And there’s a reason for that: They’re extremely popular. In 2019, Dev coauthored a study of in-room amenities, and found that 86% of hotel guests use those packaged soaps. They are more utilized than any other hotel room amenity — even the TV.
DEV: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that it’s used because it’s there and it’s there because it’s used, and guests expect it. It’s also probably the one item that’s most inconvenient to carry with you after use. So the solution was, “Let’s get the little bitty bars of soap, that we could then leave in the hotel bathroom for disposal.”
So, what does that look like, big picture?
DEV: Let’s assume they’re between five and 6 million hotel rooms around the world. And they get used at even 60% occupancy year-round. You do the math — that’s hundreds of millions of room-nights.
CROCKETT: It’s a lot of soap.
DEV: That’s a lot of soap.
That takes us back to Shawn Seipler — the guy who made that call to his hotel front desk back in 2009. He asked what they did with all that soap.
SEIPLER: And they said, “We throw it away.”
Seipler could not accept that millions of bars of soap ended up in landfills every day. So he took a bunch of these half-used bars with him, and he set up a mad scientist lab in his garage, with the help of some family and friends.
SEIPLER: We’re all sitting on upside-down pickle buckets with potato peelers. We are scraping the outside of those bars of soap. My cousin Noel is taking this soap and he’s grinding it through a meat grinder. That then gets put into the cookers. I’ve done the research to know that I can rebatch it and make a brand-new, really good bar of soap.
CROCKETT: How do you go about getting your soap in those early days? Did you have a big first donor?
SEIPLER: The Holiday Inn at the Orlando International Airport. I remember the general manager’s name so clearly — it was Peter Favier. He said, “I’ve often wondered what we could do with this. And if there’s something you can do with it, give me anything and everything you need to collect it, and we will make sure that happens on our end, and we’ll get it back to you.” Access to soap and collecting soap was not the issue. That was very easy. It just became a matter of, you know, when we got it, what are we gonna do with this recycled soap?
Seipler found an unexpected answer to that question. That’s coming up.
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As Shawn Seipler was researching how to get the most out of his pile of used hotel soaps, he found himself going down a rabbit hole of scientific papers. At the time, those studies showed that around 6,000 children, under the age of five, were dying every day from pneumonia and diarrheal disease.
SEIPLER: Every one of the studies showed that if you just gave them soap and taught them how and when to wash their hands, you could cut those deaths in half.
Getting soap to all those kids would require a slightly bigger operation — and that meant funding. Seipler spent $20,000 on grant writers and lawyers, and sent out an application to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. His proposal was rejected.
SEIPLER: That was a devastating, very emotional moment of “What are we doing? Have I made a mistake in life?”
Seipler decided to forge ahead anyway. He founded Clean the World, a non-profit that provides soap and hygiene products to communities in need around the globe. Today, it’s quite an enterprise.
SEIPLER: Typically, a room attendant will clean anywhere from 11 to 13 rooms a day. That bag of soap is filling up. When they get to the end of their shift, there will be a Clean the World green bin for soap. Our system will route that box into one of our centers.
CROCKETT: So, how does an old bar of soap become a new bar of soap?
SEIPLER: The first thing we do is we put it into a big machine that’s got a big metal screw in it just grinding that soap all the way through the very end. Almost like a meat grinder. There’s a very, very fine filter, and that filter catches all the surface material, so any plastic, hair, paper, dirt, that metal screw is just pushing, you know, tens of thousands of pounds of pressure — and that’s really doing the initial surface cleaning. Those filters have to be changed about every 45 minutes. So, it’s almost like NASCAR — every 45 minutes, we go in there with the big, you know, zz, zz, zz, zz, and we open it, we take one filter out, we put a new clean one in.
As a part of that process, they’re blending together shreds from a variety of soaps that hotel chains send them.
SEIPLER: Different types, different moisture levels, different fragrances. Looks like spaghetti noodles. We take it over to a mixer, and this is where the most important team member we have comes into play.
That would be… the Soap Whisperer.
SEIPLER: Our soap whisperer here in Orlando is Carlos Anderson — affectionately, nickname is Los D. He has to determine how much water has to get put in, so that it doesn’t fall apart, so it doesn’t crumble, so it’s not too hard, so it’s not any of the things that we don’t want. We’re also adding some sterilization solution. What comes out the end is very marble — you know, tie-dye-looking — bars of soap that have all these mixes, which actually makes a very cool, very unique bar of soap. So that when we hand a bar soap to somebody, there’s some dignity. There’s love. That pallet is going to the Dominican Republic. It may be going into Nairobi. It may be going into Uganda. It could be going to the Philippines. Could be going to Ukraine, to help those that are being impacted right now.
It’s a noble pursuit. But none of this processing or shipping is free. Early on, Seipler realized he was going to need a funding plan.
SEIPLER: There was no business model. And, really, myself and another close friend who was a part of this, we were really going through a lot of money at this time, not seeing a financial result.
CROCKETT: How did you end up working around that issue?
SEIPLER: There’s value here to the hotels. This is a premium service for them. We’re reducing landfill waste. We are sending soap back to countries and places where so many of the room attendants are actually from and are themselves sending money back to. In the state of Florida at that time, one-third of the room attendants were estimated to be from Haiti, and we were getting ready to send a bunch of soap back to Haiti. There’s a P.R. value here. So what’s going on inside of me is: We gotta get hotels to pay for this.
And they did! It’s over a decade later and the average U.S. hotel partner now pays Clean the World 50 to 80 cents per room per month. About a quarter of that is what the hotels were previously paying to waste-management companies just to get rid of the soap — and that’s without the global benefits and the good P.R.
SEIPLER: We recycle 1.4 million hotel rooms on a daily basis. In 13 years, we have diverted 22 million pounds of waste. And we have distributed 75 million donated bars of soap to children, families across the globe.
It’s a warm, fuzzy story, for sure. Just remember, though: Clean the World can’t save all the soaps. In fact, they’d have to multiply their operation by a factor of about 100 in order to do it. Cornell’s Chekitan Dev thinks a lot about this world of waste that we’ve created.
DEV: While I applaud Clean the World, I would like to see more efforts made at the root of the problem, to give people an incentive to bring your soap with you.
Until then, every year, around three quarters of a billion barely-used hotel soaps — maybe even yours — are headed to a landfill to join their friends. For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett.
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DUBNER: So, Zachary, thank you for making these episodes. I love them. And based on what we’ve heard from listeners so far, they did too. Were they as fun to make as they are to listen to?
CROCKETT: Yeah, this has been insanely fun. The point that I just want to make in this show is that interesting information can come from anyone.
DUBNER: So I have to say I’m a little jealous because you get to speak with people who actually do things and make things and figure things out, and I’m just talking mostly to academics, and they’re great — their brains are gigantic — but they’re also, you know, on the nerd scale they’re like 11 out of 10. And, I’m just curious how you got so interested in this kind of journalism.
CROCKETT: When I was a kid I never wanted one job. My dream was to work a thousand different jobs. And then I eventually found out that I could be a writer and interview all different kinds of people, and it was like having a different job every couple days. You get super obsessed with, like, dog walkers for a week — you understand who they are and why they do what they do. And then you move on to vending-machine operators and start over again.
DUBNER: Can you talk about your methodology of reporting? How do you go deep into these worlds and find out enough to do a good piece?
CROCKETT: I’ve found that oftentimes the questions that you ask are less important than who you talk to. People often turn to experts in our world, whether they’re economists, PhDs, analysts, but if I want to know why there’s a bus driver shortage, I’m gonna go talk to a bunch of bus drivers and then I’ll learn something that I never suspected, like maybe that a part of the reason is Amazon is poaching them all to be delivery drivers. And then in the process I’ll learn that the shortage of bus drivers might be worse in areas where Amazon has opened new warehouses. That’s a fascinating connection I may not have learned from someone who’s only looking at the problem through a broader economic lens.
DUBNER: But whether it’s bus driver shortage or Girl Scout cookies or whatever — literally, how do you find the people who can tell you what you need to know?
CROCKETT: One thing is I’m a member of 200 private Facebook groups. I’m in communities for rare aquarium fish owners, Hot Wheels collectors, lumber mill workers, ride-share drivers. And I’ll just log in and see the strangest updates. I’ll see an arowana fish owner talking about how the golden sheen on his fish is fading away. And then in the comments there’s a whole intense debate over whether he got taken for a ride by a black-market fish dealer. I’ll see posts from McDonald’s franchise owners breaking down their business model in excruciating detail, down to their monthly loss in ground beef. I’ll see posts from ice-cream-truck drivers asking their colleagues how to deal with people stepping on their turf in local communities. I just want to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. You can read all these headlines about gas prices going up, and you can read about the supply chains of gas and international relations and all the macro elements that go into the prices you pay at the pump. But the people at the end of the supply chain often get left out of the conversation. Gas station owners don’t generally find their way into high-profile interviews in major publications — and they have a lot of interesting things to say. In some cases, they have more insight than the “experts” do.
DUBNER: Now, when you join these private Facebook groups, you are not — as far as I know — a Girl Scout or a rare fish collector. How does that work? How do you lurk and even interact ultimately without invading privacy?
CROCKETT: I usually message the moderator and I say that I’m just someone who’s curious. I state my case and sometimes they let me in, sometimes they don’t.
DUBNER: If they don’t, do you try to work your way in a different method?
CROCKETT: Well, the good thing about these groups is that there are hundreds of them. If I want to infiltrate a traffic light engineer group, there’s 20 different groups that I can attempt to join.
DUBNER: Zachary, I’m so happy that you’ve decided to come play in our sandbox, so thanks.
CROCKETT: Thank you, Stephen.
So, podcast listeners, that was the last episode of The Economics of Everyday Things … for now. We very much hope the show will be back in the near future — to make sure you hear it, subscribe to The Economics of Everyday Things in your podcast app. So far, Zachary has looked at the economics of gas stations, Girl Scout cookies, used hotel soaps, and “My Sharona.” As you can imagine, the list of future topics stretches pretty much to infinity. What everyday things would you like to hear about? Let us know at email@example.com. In the meantime, we’ve got a lot of exciting stuff coming up right here on Freakonomics Radio. As always, thanks for listening.
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This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley and mixed by Jeremy Johnston — with help from Greg Rippin and Emma Tyrell. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner.
CROCKETT: You’re sitting around with some friends in a garage cooking soap. Uh, what did that look like?
SEIPLER: First time that the police drove by the garage, I remember one of my family members going, “Shawn, I think you’re going to have to talk to them about this one!”
- “A Detailed Study of the Expected and Actual Use of Hotel Amenities,” by Chekitan S. Dev and Prateek Kumar (Boston Hospitality Review, 2019).
- “Goodbye Tiny Bottles, Hello Dispensers,” by the National Park Service (2019).
- “Diarrheal Diseases,” by Bernadeta Dadonaite, Hannah Ritchie, and Max Roser (Our World in Data, 2019).