By Sophia Bennett on January 29, 2014

Soap is highly regulated based on its characteristics. So, that leaves us with the question, how exactly do we recycle soap?

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You know when you visit a hotel and unwrap one of those little bars of soap and use it once? Then, the next day you have to throw it away because you know even the most eco-minded maid is not going to recycle it by taking it home?

It is sad but true — soap is a tough thing to recycle on a large scale. The main reason: Soap is highly regulated based on its characteristics. So, that leaves us with the question, how do we recycle soap?

How soap is made

Soap is made by combining a fat with an alkaline substance. Traditionally, it was made with animal fat and ashes, although it is possible to make soap with other ingredients. Glycerin (which can be made synthetically or from animal sources), olive oil and milk make nice substitutes for the fat, and the modern soap maker is more likely to purchase lye than pull ashes out of the fireplace.

These days, most soaps are commercially made and are considered detergents. If a bar of soap makes a cosmetic claim, such as moisturizing or deodorizing, it is technically a cosmetic product. If it makes a medical claim, such as killing bacteria or preventing acne, it is technically a drug. All these products are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“True” soaps, which you are more likely to find at a farmers or artisans market, are made using a more traditional cold process and do not have the strict labeling requirements of detergent soaps. However, they are still closely monitored by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

All the rules and regulations around soap make it tough for a business to make any money reprocessing it. Liquid soaps present an additional challenge: Since they come in tightly sealed containers, it is easy for bacteria to get trapped in the bottle, making the product unsafe for reuse.

Ingredients in soap can harm water, animals

Small amounts of animal fat and ashes are not likely to do major harm to the environment. But, some of the chemicals found in modern-day soaps will. Perhaps the most significant are triclosan and triclocarban, which are used in antibacterial soap. These chemicals do not break down in the wastewater treatment process, meaning they end up back in rivers, fields and even our drinking water. Some studies have shown the chemicals harm sea creatures. Many have shown that using antibacterial soap at home provides no real benefit.

Soap may also contain artificial fragrances, paraffin wax and other ingredients derived from petroleum and other chemicals. Those microbeads found in some soft soaps do not always disintegrate; instead, they end up in whole form in lakes. All of these are things that do not need to go into our waste stream.

Nonprofits recycle soap, share with people in need

There are two organizations that have figured out how to recycle soap on a large scale. Clean the World based in Orlando, FL, partners with hotels to put soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotion into the hands of people who need it. Products are sorted, sanitized and distributed to people in need in other countries. Clean the World estimates that, since 2009, it has reused 11 million bars of soap and eliminated 750 tons of waste.

Clean the World cannot accept used soap from individuals. However, they will take unopened products, so if you have items sitting around the house that you do not plan to use, this is a great way to dispose of them. (Another way to get rid of unopened item: See if a local homeless shelter or other nonprofit would like to take them.)

The Global Soap Project, based outside of Atlanta, accepts bar soap, but only from hotels. The organization works with large health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control to get the soap into the hands of orphans, refugees and others living in extreme poverty in other parts of the world. The Global Soap Project does not take donations from individuals, but you can encourage your favorite hotels to join their program.

How to recycle soap at home

Soap can easily be reused or recycled at home. Many DIY sites offer instructions for taking small bits of soap and turning them back into bars or liquids. This is an easy, fun project to do with kids, and the colorful, sweet-smelling result will delight them.

The San Francisco Chronicle shared a couple ways to recycle soap that are even easier:

  • Put several small bits in the toe of an old pair of pantyhose (make sure there is no run in that section). Tie off the open end and hang the sock by the sink. When you go to wash your hands, get them plenty wet then roll the sock between your hands.
  • Find a bath sponge with a pocket for a bar of soap. Rather than sticking a whole bar in there, put in your soap remnants.
Soap is something we often take for granted. But, for the millions of people who cannot afford it or even get access to it, soap is anything but a luxury. The Global Soap Project shares that if birthing attendants soaped up before delivering babies it reduces infant mortality by 19%, and that 1.4 million deaths could be prevented every year by hand washing with soap.

About the author

Sophia Bennett is a freelance writer based in Eugene, OR. Her work has been featured in more than a dozen magazines, newspapers and blogs. She is a dedicated home recycler, an avid thrift store shopper and a huge compost nerd.

Sophia's other professional experience include six years with the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, an internationally recognized leader in the field of nonprofit waste-based business development, and a year as an economic development and recycling coordinator in the U.K. She's volunteered with the Oregon State University Extension Service Compost Specialist program and Willamette Farm and Food Coalition. In her spare time she enjoys cooking, reading, crafts, gardening and spending time with her husband and twin daughters.


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