Parkland Press

Sunday, February 25, 2018
PRESS PHOTO COURTESY SAMIR LAKHANISamir Lakhani is shown last year at the Eco-Soap Bank branch in Siem Reap, Cambodia. PRESS PHOTO COURTESY SAMIR LAKHANISamir Lakhani is shown last year at the Eco-Soap Bank branch in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
PRESS PHOTO COURTESY SAMIR LAKHANIThese women are recycling hotel soap into eco-soap at the Eco-Soap Bank branch in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2017. PRESS PHOTO COURTESY SAMIR LAKHANIThese women are recycling hotel soap into eco-soap at the Eco-Soap Bank branch in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2017.

Parkland graduate receives $10,000 for Eco-Soap Bank initiative

Wednesday, January 17, 2018 by AARON BERGER Special to The Press in School

Samir Lakhani, a 2010 Parkland High School graduate, was nominated for CNN’s 2017 Hero of the Year Award for his founding and work with Eco-Soap Bank.

Now 25 and living in Pittsburgh, his organization recycles used hotel soap to distribute to villages in Cambodia and other countries for better hygiene, and to help create jobs.

Lakhani was nominated for the award by an elementary school class in Baldwin, N.Y.

The class read about his organization’s work and was impressed.

“I think the fact our organization focuses on teaching hygiene to children resonated with the students and their teachers,” Lakhani said.

The hero of the year was revealed during a live airing of “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,” on Dec. 17, 2017.

Lakhani did not win but he will receive $10,000.

Amy Wright of North Carolina won for her support of hiring people with disabilities at her coffee shop, “Bitty and Beau’s Coffee.” She will receive $100,000 to help grow her cause.

During high school, Lakhani was a robust member of the Envirothon Club and very active in the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences.

“My involvement with these groups and the great advisors I had, helped lead me toward focusing on a career in environmental issues,” Lakhani said. “Climate change and associated environmental problems are one of the defining issues of our generation.”

Lakhani’s sister had the opportunity to study in Hong Kong.

One time when he visited her, they explored Southeast Asia.

“Cambodia stood out to me,” he explained.

“I was exposed to areas much poorer than the rest of Southeast Asia.

“I felt the people living in those conditions should not have to, but found out those I engaged with were very happy with much less.”

While attending college at the University of Pittsburgh, Lakhani was required to complete an internship.

During his junior year, in 2014, Lakhani connected with the Trailblazer Cambodia Organization, a non-governmental organization studying how climate change affects rural villages in Cambodia.

“I assisted TCO by doing field interviews and working on aquaculture fish farming projects,” Lakhani said. “While working in the village, I saw a mother bathing her newborn child with laundry powder, which is a too corrosive and abrasive product to be used for that purpose.”

Lakhani said he could not get the image out of his head.

“I realized as my room was being cleaned every day, I would receive a fresh new bar of soap, even though I had barely used the previous one,” Lakhani said. “I wanted to somehow connect the worlds of my guest house and the rural village I was working in with soap.

“With only about a week left of my internship, I decided to ride my bike through the city of Siem Reap, which attracts tourism due to its famous temples.”

Lakhani started visiting hotels asking if they could save leftover soap from the rooms.

“After hearing me out, they were eager to help,” he explained.

“The process would help hotels reduce their amount of waste and help the community, a win-win.”

Lakhani said he asked the TCO for advice on how to implement the soap initiative, as he had limited experience and did not live in Cambodia

“TCO was also eager to help and guided me through the process,” he explained. “Under their auspice, I returned to the U.S. and formally registered Eco-Soap Bank, and started my fundraising efforts.

“Eventually I re-ceived enough funds to hire one Cambodian woman to collect the used soap. She melted down the collected bars and placed them in empty plastic water bottles, also collected from the hotels, to recycle them, too.

“I reached out to Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, and other groups in Allentown, Pittsburgh and Tampa, where my sister lived, trying to raise money.”

Lakhani said he wanted to hire more women to help handle the manual labor involved with recycling soap.

“I think my efforts paid off because people were supportive,” Lakhani said. “They recognized the various aspects involved: the environmental impact reusing and reducing soap, the social aspect of hiring women, and the health aspect of improving community hygiene.”

Lakhani said his organization’s work with hygiene has an important environmental component.

“We save millions of bars of soap from entering landfills, redirecting this waste that otherwise would have just been discarded.”

Some 174,000 bars of soap have been donated, about 24,000 pounds of soap has been recycled, and hygiene had been improved for about 661,000 people.

Not much has changed with Lakhani’s current approach to partnering with hotels.

“We attempt to study the current hotel landscape and reach out to the hotel leaders through meetings and/or simply popping in,” Lakhani said. “The hotels have a product that they do not value, and there is no added work or cost to save their soap for us to collect.

“We ask them if we can work together and, 99 percent of the time, the hotels say ‘absolutely’ right on the spot.”

After the soap is collected, it is brought to the recycling workshop.

It goes through three steps. First the bars are cleaned by scraping off the entire outer shell.

Next, they are submerged in chlorine to help sanitize them.

And finally, they are cut up into small pieces and placed in a manual press that clusters the bars together.

New bars are then made out of that final product.

“We also help provide a livelihood and free education for disadvantaged women,” Lakhani said. “Gender roles are well observed and difficult to navigate in developing countries.

“Most families are subsistent, living off the land, lacking discretionary income.

Lakhani said for a woman in the family to be the bread winner is unique, especially when receiving a predictable income.

“We are committed to fair wages. In Cambodia, our employees receive 150 percent over the national per capita average income,” Lakhani said. “They also receive free daily English classes and financial classes to help secure other types of employment for them in the future.”

The group is work in Cambodia, Laos, Tanzania, Rwanda and Nepal.

“I am hoping to use the award for being nominated to hire more women and eventually open a new branch in Ethiopia,” Lakhani said.

He advises anyone interested in developing a program similar to the Eco-Soap Bank, should use his story as evidence an idea can materialize quickly and successfully.

“If you have an interesting mission that can bring a lot of different people on board, you do not have to do everything yourself,” Lakhani said. “Empower your friends and family by letting them know you see them as a vehicle toward making a difference for others.

“Chances are they may be more active than you are.”

Donations to his group are helpful and appreciated.

“It costs only about 25 cents a year to provide hygiene and education for a single child in Cambodia,” Lakhani explained. “Our approach is a cost-effective way to help improve global health, reduce waste sent to landfills, and to help provide full-time employment and education for disadvantaged women.”

More information about the Eco-Soap Bank is available at ecosoapbank.org or by emailing Lakhani at samir@ecosoapbank.org.