“Sustainability” isn’t something most of us associate with Las Vegas. However, as one of the top tourist destinations in the world, the Las Vegas Strip presents a host of opportunities for tackling the rampant waste created by the industry.
That’s exactly what the Caesars Foundation is trying to do as part of the Clean the World program. Clean the World is a foundation that recycles soap and shampoo products discarded from the hospitality industry and donates them to at-risk people across the world, helping to prevent millions of deaths from hygiene-related illnesses every year. Caesars Entertainment, the US-based casino-entertainment corporation, teamed up with Clean the World — donating nearly one million pounds of used soap amenities in 2014 — and has rallied other Las Vegas hospitality giants to get on board, as well.
The partnership with Caesars has enabled Clean the World to expand its efforts across the western US, to now include properties in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado and Phoenix. In 2014, the initiative managed to divert/recycle an impressive 18 million bars of soap, distributed to 2500 hotels.
We spoke with Clean the World founder Shawn Seipler and Thom Reilly, executive director for the Caesars Foundation, to hear more about the impacts of the global hygiene initiative.
Q: Shawn, how did you come to found Clean the World?
Shawn Seipler: At the end of 2008, I was Vice President of Sales and Marketing for an e-commerce technology company and was on the road for four nights a week. I was really hitting that point in my life when I was looking for something different. I started to think from an entrepreneurial perspective and started to really home in on sustainability, which had me starting to focus on waste. I was in a hotel room in Minneapolis in late 2008 and was really curious about happened to the soap in the bottles when I was done using it. I called the front desk and asked them what happened to it, and of course they told me that they throw it away.
As I did some research I discovered that in the US we’re throwing away around one million, and globally more than five million, bars of soap every day. The real “aha” moment for Clean the World came when I found studies that showed the top two killers of children, pneumonia and diarrheal disease, killed 9,000 children under the age of five every day, and that when you provide soap and proper hygiene education you can reduce the mortality rate of those two diseases by up to 60 percent. It was very clear that there was an amazing opportunity there; we could collect the soap and other amenities from hotels, recycle and redistribute them to children and families all over the world.
So at the beginning of 2009 I was able to convince some family members, and decided to leave a very good job at that time to set up a recycling center in a single-car garage in downtown Orlando. We were working with local hotels, taking in their used soap and distributing it to families all over the world. If we fast-forward to today, we’ve so far distributed 22 million bars of soap in 96 countries across the globe, prevented more than 6.5 million gallons of landfill waste from more 2,500 hotels that operate our program all across America, Hong Kong, Singapore and now in Taiwan. With the generous support of companies like Caesars Entertainment, we have really driven a global impact using this simple idea of recycling soap and sending it to children and mothers all over the world to literally save their lives.
Q: Tell us more about the Caesars initiative.
SS: We started the initiative in Las Vegas with a few properties on the Strip with Caesars back in 2010, and Caesars also helped fund a facility for us so we could put one in the Western region of the United States to support their properties and others across Las Vegas. Today we have every single Caesars property running our program, so it’s not just those in Las Vegas. So every day, every single housekeeper in these properties are engaged with the program; they’re collecting these bottles and recycling them so they can be redistributed to a Clean the World center. So it’s literally thousands of employees engaging to drive this social responsibility and sustainability program.
Of course, with that facility in Las Vegas and Caesars’ tremendous support in our program, we were able to bring on more hotels and more partners in Vegas, such as Las Vegas Sands and many others on the Strip. What that has led to is about 1,500 properties in the western part of the States, including California and Arizona, are all able to send their products in to our recycling center in Vegas. What started as an initiative with Caesars to reduce landfill waste really spread across the whole Las Vegas Strip and western United States.
Thom Reilly: At Caesars we have three primary goals: serving older individuals, education and environmental initiatives. The gift and partnership with Clean the World really perfectly falls within that third category. The request for the gift actually came from employees. Most of our corporate initiatives really come from the top, corporate level, but this was rather unique because it was the employees who approached the company and foundation about a partnership with Clean the World. I think the reason it resonated so much with employees, and particularly our housekeepers was because they dispose of these soaps and unused shampoo bottles on a daily basis. When Clean the World came and approached the employees, I think it was very meaningful because they thought that by recycling the soaps and shampoos, and donating them to homeless shelters across the US and emerging economies, was very rewarding.
I think one of the main reasons that Clean the World was interested in Caesars is that being the largest gaming company in the world and having a wide range of hospitality services on the Strip would allow them to leverage other gaming companies on the Strip to bring them to the table. And that’s what occurred: We have competition with the other gaming companies, and although we like to brag that we brought them to Las Vegas, our intent was always to get the other hospitality partners on board. From Caesars’ perspective, every one of our properties nationwide participates, and nearly every company on the Strip is participating, too.
Q: There are several strands to the project: It incorporates the diversion of landfill waste with improved education and hygiene practices. Is there one driving aspect and what are you trying to achieve overall with the project?
SS: In this organization, we almost equally touch on the sustainability notion as we do the social responsibility and impact. Every time we receive a bin of discarded product that we’re going to deal with, we weigh those items so we know exactly how much poundage we’re receiving from every individual hotel, and roll that up to the corporate level so Caesars knows exactly how much waste it is recycling. We provide impact statements back to those hotels and corporate brands, which very clearly articulates how much landfill diversion, how much plastic has been recycled and how much soap has been redistributed to those in need because of your efforts. I would tell you that, I believe, the hotels are equally concerned with both sides of those equations; sustainability is a very important notion to them because their customers really care about that but they are equally thrilled to be touching lives and really making an impact through global hygiene awareness by placing their products into those hurting locally, domestically and across the world.
I’ll add a third component there, which is the housekeepers. When you go, for instance, to Caesars and meet their housekeepers, they have a large population who come from Mexico, the Philippines, Honduras — they are coming from the countries that we are distributing so much of the product back into. The third leg is that you really get that employee volunteerism — employees every day can drive real impact for their country, people and perhaps for their own mothers and children that may be back in the country that they’re sending these products and money back to.
Q: How have employees and partners reacted to the Clean the World program?
TR: The response from the other companies on the Strip has been really positive and I think that’s because it’s simple and makes sense. I think that’s always the struggle with so many needy causes — trying to align them with corporations. And this just makes sense - I mean, it’s hard not to get. Why would you throw away shampoos and soaps when they can be recycled? It’s kind of like, why weren’t we doing this earlier? On top of that you get employees who are very enthusiastic about it as part of their job. So we developed a program where we allow employees to compete, then we send them to various countries where Clean the World has its delivery. Employees see firsthand what happens - they see it from the hotel room to how it can actually make an impact in communities. It’s so embraced by the employees that it’s hard for the company not to say: Why weren’t we doing this?
SS: We have also been very fortunate to execute corporate agreements with nearly all major corporate chains: Marriott, IHG, Starwood, Wyndham, Hilton and Hyatt. Every one of those continues to add more hotels, and continue to promote our program especially in the meetings industry. They are very interested in promoting socially responsible services at their hotels, so we end up becoming a great answer for them.
We have also seen a wonderful reaction from our hotel partners, including Caesars, in going with us to the mission field. Caesars have now brought their employees — who have won an experience through an essay program — to come to a Clean the World distribution point. We have taken Caesars’ employees to the Philippines, straight after Typhoon Haiyan, and more recently to the Dominican Republic. Then for them to back to their companies, tell other employees about the trip is a really a statement about how the hotels think about it and how much they want to be a part of it. We are now planning a third trip with Caesars — this will hopefully be an annual event for them — to really see how we turn trash into treasure for so many people around the world.
Q: What are the next steps for the Clean the World-Caesars partnership?
SS: The goal is to establish long-term commitments, which we feel we have with Caesars. We need to expand our program globally so we were very happy to open our facility in Hong Kong a couple of months ago to engage hotel partners there, in Singapore and Taiwan. Our next goal is to put one in Mainland China, and we have almost weekly requests from hotels in England, France, Italy, Spain, Germany - all the major tourist spots — so we really need to get a facility in Europe as well. We really envision the European marketplace able to supply directly into Africa where there is a high mortality rate of diarrheal disease and pneumonia. Even in the recent outbreak of Ebola, Unicef is going door-to-door handing out soap in order to improve hygiene and prevent people from catching the Ebola virus. That’s really our overall goal: to try to capture as many of the five million bars of soap discarded every day and put them into the hands of people who need them.
TR: One of the goals we had was to bring the recycling plant to Las Vegas because all of the recycling plants were on the East coast. A key goal is to maintain and sustain the operations to make it work on the West coast. The second thing is to get all of the hospitality industry in Las Vegas on board, to increase the total impact of recycling on the Strip. So we’re really embracing being goodwill mascots to other companies to get them board.
In terms of a long-term relationship, the nice thing is that as we continue to work with each other we continue to see what the needs of the company - from an employee standpoint and Clean the World - are and this allows us to grow the partnership in different ways.