Mumbai Local

Recycling soaps, recycling lives

innovating way:Tribal schoolchildren at Shilonda wash their hands with the soap distributed by NGO Sundara; and women at work at the NGO’s soap recycling unit at Kalwa. —Photos: Vivek Bendre and special arrangement  

The half-used soap that guests leave behind at Mumbai’s luxury hotels is now lathering up a hygiene movement in the city’s slum pocket of Kalwa and also in Shilonda, a village in Dahanu. For nearly two years, members of an NGO, Sundara, have been collecting these pieces of soap, putting them through a cleaning and disinfection process before recycling them into fresh bars of soap which are then given out to children.

The brain behind the soap revolution is Erin Zaikis, 26, from Boston who, riveted by the visuals of Slumdog Millionaire, decided to visit Mumbai seven years back. But unlike others, her fascination for the film or Mumbai wasn’t limited to a cinematic or a tourist experience. She decided to make the journey from Boston to Mumbai – with a purpose.

And she found that purpose – a soap revolution – in 2013 when she was working at the Thailand-Myanmar border and discovered that the children there had no idea of what soap was. “I asked them what their mothers used for washing clothes and utensils and they replied ‘water’,” she said. She realised that while she had a new bar of soap at her hotel every day, the locality around the hotel used just water. “I brought a bar for them one day. They stared initially and then started experimenting with it. Some smelled it, others tried to eat it.”

On her second visit to Mumbai in 2014 — after a year of baking soaps in the U.S. and selling them to raise funds for hygiene programmes in Thailand — she started her NGO, Sundara. During her maiden visit to Mumbai she had taught at an orphanage.

“India is all about contacts, and I knew no one here. I have been ignored multiple times, stating that I was an outsider with no insight into the lives of the Indian population. Several hotels refused our offer for fear of getting tangled in legal issues. My parents too were highly sceptical about it,” said Ms Zaikis.

But perseverance paid and 17 luxury and boutique hotels registered with Sundara. Now, every Saturday, three women from Kalwa visit these hotels to collect the leftover soap. They scrape the outer layer with a vegetable peeler, apply disinfectant, shred it to pieces and press them into bars using a manually operated machine.

The pilot programme was started in Mumbai, and Sundara now has centres in Myanmar and Uganda also. The two Indian soap recycling units are located in Maharashtra: at Kalwa and Ashte. “We provide the recycled soaps to underprivileged school children twice a month. Kalwa is the hub of migrant population in Mumbai. We provide the recycled soaps to Reap which runs literacy classes for children in the Kalwa slums,” said Kenneth D'Souza, director of Sundara.

Sundara volunteers also run hygiene awareness workshops for teachers, who in turn, share it with their students.

At Ashte, the recycled soaps are distributed to 500 school-going children of Shilonda in Dahanu. “The entire belt is inhabited by tribals, who live in conditions that are worse than urban slums,” said Mr D'Souza.

The units are run by three full-time women employees. “We were part of a Self Help Group when we met Erin. After a three-month training period, we were selected to work here,” said Madhuri Pawar, who works at Kalwa.

Today,the impact of Sundara, however, makes the memory of challenges bleak. “We have reports from various teachers telling us that they have observed an improvement in the health of the children. Students suffering from scabies and rashes now have a healthy skin. Along with instilling hygiene, Sundara also creates employment for socially disadvantaged local women and reduces soap waste generated by the hospitality sector,” said Mr D'Souza.

Sundara has already produced over 20,000 soaps in India in 2016. Combined with Myanmar and Uganda, it adds up to 1,40,000. Sundara receives some funding from US-based soap companies, individual donors from Canada and India and hopes to expand operations in the future.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 10:51:27 PM |

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