Saving Lives in India by Recycling Soap

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A girl in India with soap provided by the Sundara project.Credit: Emily Rose Weinstein

The soap you left on the hotel shower floor at the end of your last vacation could save a life. At least, that’s what Erin Zaikis, a 25-year-old Jewish woman from New York, says.

Zaikis is the living spirit behind a unique startup, the first of its kind in the world, that began operations in India last year.

The idea is simple and elegant. Hotels collect the abandoned soap and recycle it instead of throwing it into the garbage. The soap is cleaned, disinfected and repackaged in a special process. In the next stage, it is distributed free to anyone who can’t access or afford to buy soap.

Zaikis, whose mother is a doctor and father a lawyer, grew up in a middle-class Reform Jewish family near Boston. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine.

“I’m totally Ashkenazi,” she said with a laugh during a phone interview with Haaretz.

In 2009, she was taken with the film “Slumdog Millionaire,” whose hero is a boy who grew up in a garbage neighborhood in Mumbai.

Sundara founder Erin Zaikis.Credit: Courtesy

“After watching that film I told myself, ‘I cannot believe that people actually live like that; I need to go there and see it,” she says. “I was blown away by this film, and wanted to understand better how people there are living. It’s so much different from the way I lived.”

She spent the summer of 2009 in India, where she volunteered at a Mumbai orphanage.

“It was a life-changing experience,” she says. “It’s a shock to all the senses. It taught me a lot and gave me perspective – me and so many Americans who live in New York and complain about things.”

Besides the poverty and forlornness of Mumbai’s worst neighborhoods, the fact that most of its residents don’t have decent hygienic conditions caught Zaikis’ eye. She was especially shocked that 13-year-old children don’t know what soap is.

When she returned to the United States, she felt she wanted to keep helping the poor people she had met in India, but the first thought she had was not much different than from that of people who watch the news about the refugee crisis in Europe and feel empathy, but continue with their daily routine.

“I felt that I’m only one, and what can I do aside from feeling sorry. I felt helpless,” she says. But something kept goading her.

'I felt that it’s not enough only to feel sorry, you need to act if you want to make a change.'Credit: Emily Rose Weinstein

“I felt that it’s not enough only to feel sorry, you need to act if you want to make a change,” she recalled. “I wanted to go back there. not as a tourist but as someone who makes a change.”

Looking for a simple and original way to help the locals she met in India, she was reminded that many of them did not have access to basic hygiene. When she started studying the issue in depth, while living in New York, she discovered that two million children die annually from diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea, which are preventable by simple means like using soap.

What is a given to those living in the West is not part of the daily routine for many in developing nations. According to World Health Organization statistics, 70 million people in India have no access to soap.

Returning to India, full of motivation, she contacted hotels in Mumbai, India’s biggest city and one of the most populous in the world. She asked them to save the soap collected from the rooms after being used instead of tossing them out. Later, she started training women from impoverished neighborhoods in the city how to recycle the soaps. The recycling process is done manually, with the help of chemicals and without need of electricity. It is simple and fast, taking just seven minutes, according to her. She distributed the recycled soaps to children; some of them did not know until that point what soap was. Thus was born the startup Sundara, which means “beautiful.”

“We work with luxury and boutique hotels in Mumbai to collect bar soap waste [usually thrown away by hotels],” she says. “It is taken back to the slums, where we’ve trained underprivileged women to reconvert it back into sanitized bars, and then we distribute it free-of-cost to children and parents in need, while hosting free education workshops in the slums.”

She launched the project in the summer of 2014. Dozens of hotels and women from Mumbai’s slums take part. Its products are distributed to 30 schools and community centers. Members of the project also provide training sessions to teach children how to use the soap. Along the way, the project also provides jobs for women and improves the status of the community.

The venture is a joint project with Gabriel Project Mumbai, a Jewish volunteer-based initiative that provides hunger relief, literacy support and health care to children living in the Mumbai slums. Gabriel Project Mumbai was founded in 2012 by Australian-Israeli Jacob Sztokman.

Zaikis does not present her project as Jewish per se, but she does note that half its donors are Jewish. “What we’re doing here is tikun olam,” she says, referring to the Jewish concept of repairing the world.

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