Little Soaps Satisfy Big Demand in Haiti

With all this worry over the H1N1 flu virus, there's a lot of talk about hygiene. Even President Obama has urged us to wash our hands. But this simple act is a global problem when one in five people live without clean water, and 5 percent live without adequate sanitation.

It's too often the case in Haiti where a worldly offering sets off a scramble. It's not for free food or medicine but soap.

Precious here, the handouts would've been trash in the United States if not for Shawn Seipler.

"I thought there would be anxiety or desperation for it, but not nearly to the degree I just saw," Seipler told CBS News Correspondent Seth Doane.

This mission to Haiti was born almost a year ago, when Seipler and his colleague Paul Till were salesmen sporting six-figure salaries.

They got to wondering about those little bars of hotel soap, which most of us use just once.

"There are 4.6 million hotel rooms across the United States," Seipler said. "We started doing the math and figured that's a lot of soap that's being tossed out."

He estimates that's 1.5 million bars hitting American landfills every day, a number so staggering it inspired them to quit their jobs and launch a non-profit called Clean the World.

They collect soap from 80 Orlando, Fla., hotels, use restaurant steamers to remove impurities and repackage the bars for shipment. Most hotels jumped right on board.

"We had this 900 room hotel that needed a place to put its slightly used amenities," said Marshall Kelberman, director of the rooms department for Orlando's Peabody Hotel. "It just felt like it was a match made in heaven."

It's a shoestring operation with an ambitious goal.

"Yes, it's about recycling," Seipler said. "It's about preventing landfill waste … but it's also about taking those items … and handing them to people who are dying because they don't have soap."

In Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, disease spreads easily.

Garbage clogs gutters, fills rivers and seems to suffocate life.

Worldwide, 2 million people die every year from diarrhea, often caused by poor sanitation. Most are under the age of five, 8,000 children in Haiti alone.

Studies suggest simple hand washing could cut those deaths by up to 30 percent. But that's not as simple as it sounds.

In a market in Cap-Haitien, a woman sells soap for a little less than a dollar a bar, which doesn't sound like much, but you've got to consider that three-quarters of Haiti's population lives on less than $2 a day.

Some students here may sing about soap, but their school's headmaster says those lessons are often lost at home.

"Because it's just too expensive?" Doane asked headmaster Jayce Dortelus.

"It is; they can't afford it," Dortelus said.

So far, Clean the World has distributed 60,000 bars.

While it's only a dent, it's had a big impact on Seipler's spirit.

"It was crystal clear," Seipler said while tapping his head. "But it wasn't until we came here until it really got into the heart."

Hope by the handful in a place where just a sliver is reason to cheer.
  • Seth Doane

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