How a soap recycling initiative is changing lives in Mumbai slums

Sundara is a soap making operation in Mumbai that collects bar soap waste from hotels and recycles it for underprivileged children who cannot afford to buy soap.

Ever wondered what happens to the barely used soaps that you leave behind in hotel rooms? Think they get reused? I’ve got bad news – they don’t. In fact they are normally tossed away, cluttering our already crowded landfills.

Sundara, a soap making operation in Mumbai has a neat solution to this problem. They collect bar soap waste from hotels, sanitize and recycle it and distribute the new soaps to underprivileged children and adults who cannot afford soap. To date they have regular soap distributions reaching over 6,000 underprivileged children and adults in Mumbai slums. They have also saved thousands of kilograms of waste from going to landfills in the process.


The Alternative caught up with founder Erin Zaikis to learn more about the initiative.

The inspiration

A few years ago when Erin Zaikis, a graduate from University of Michigan was in rural Thailand, she met a group of kids who didn’t know what soap was. “When I asked for soap to wash my hands at a local school, all I got was a lot of blank stares. I was shocked. I never thought that there could be people in the world where soap was not a part of their daily life,” says Erin.

After this she returned to New York and began reading about soap and promoting hygiene. “Everyone was talking about clean water but no one was talking about soap and hygiene education,” says Erin. According to a study by Unilever there are an estimated 70 million people in India who don’t know what soap is or cannot afford it.

This compelled Erin to start Sundara. Sundara currently runs its programs in three countries with some of the greatest need-India, Uganda and Myanmar.

“I started the India program program in Mumbai because this city is close to my heart. Six years back I worked in a girls’ orphanage there. That summer program was a life changing experience: It made me realize that my calling was in the social sector and I felt that I had a lot to give back to this city. I needed to come back with a purpose,” says Erin.

The journey, an incredibly difficult one

Erin started this program in India last summer. “The journey was difficult. If I knew how hard it would be when I started I would probably have never started it,” she laughs.

Going to hotels, asking them to give their trash for free, facing mistrust from all sides, breaking the notion in the community that recycled soap is not clean or sanitary – every experience was a challenge in itself for Erin. “There were countless moments when I doubted myself and asked – is this what I should be doing?”, she says.

“Saving soap from going in to landfills, helping hotels recycle their trash, providing employment opportunities to women in slums, distributing soap and hygiene education to children free of charge- this is a win-win situation for everyone. When the going got tougher this thought pushed me forward to continue,” adds Erin.

Cost effective operation

Sundara has tied up with 15 hotels in Mumbai. A Mumbai based water company, Mulshi Springs collects the soaps free of charge from these hotels and delivers it to their workshop. Once at the workshop, soap is sorted out of the debris. Sundara’s female employees – all of whom are local residents of the slum scrape the outside part of the soaps using a vegetable peeler, grate them in to powder form, then bleach them with a food grade bleach solution, drain and finally press them in to bars using a hand operated pressing machine. “It takes about seven minutes from start to finish to make a batch of recycled soap,” says Erin.

“So the entire process is sustainable because there is very little waste and the cost is extremely low in our operations. We’ve been fortunate to have so much donated to us,” says Erin.

Not just about distributing soaps


Just distributing soaps is not enough. To spread awareness Sundara’s employees are also trained to be hygiene ambassadors. Along with distributing soaps to around 30 schools, the women also conduct hygiene workshops teaching adults and kids alike about hand hygiene, hygiene in the kitchen, importance of soap and more.

Adjusting to work culture in India

The hardest challenge for Erin has been internal, facing her own self-doubts and demons.“I had never started an organization before. Up until this point I have been more of a talker and less of a doer. But Sundara was something I really believed in and so I held myself accountable for it,” Erin says.

“The other challenge was adjusting to work culture in India. I am an impatient person by nature and wanted things to work out quickly. When I started in India, I wasn’t seeing immediate results and I was almost ready to give up,” says Erin. She adds,“But I learnt that the process here takes time, you have to meet several people, explain things to them. It takes time for things to warm up and then you get the results. I feel that Indians have so much patience and I’ve tried to adopt that mindset too. All good things take time to build.”

Measuring Impact


The most important change for Erin has been in the attitude of the women who work at Sundara. “Initially when we hired these women, they were shy and used to talk in whispers. We were training them to be ambassadors and I thought their shy demeanor might turn out to be a problem. But today I stand corrected, so impressed am I with how much they’ve grown. I just took them to a hospitality function at one of our hotels and watched how they explained our recycling process with confidence and pride. They weren’t intimidated by the fact that they were interacting with a general manager. I think they realize that they deserve to have a seat at the table too,” says Erin admiringly.

Future plans

Future plans include bringing more hotels on board, opening a medical clinic in the community to address additional health needs and opening this program in more Indian cities. “We know that this process can be scaled and replicated everywhere. So we are looking for local partners who wish to start this process in their own organisations and we could lend our expertise and knowledge to them,” says Erin.

Erin is passionate about continuing to make impact with Sundara, no matter what. “As we increase the availability of soap and educate about the benefits of hand-washing, we are able to give children a better chance to stay in school and reach adulthood. If we can draw more interest and support for this issue, one day in the not so distant future no child in India will ask the question, what’s a soap? That dream is what motivates me and keeps me working on this day after day!”

Check out the TED video where Erin talks about the initiative and how it’s solving world’s biggest hygiene crisis


Usha Hariprasad is a freelance writer. She is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writes about travel related destinations around Bangalore at Citizen Matters. more


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Usha Hariprasad is a freelance writer. She is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writes about travel related destinations around Bangalore at Citizen Matters. more

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