It’s becoming de rigueur these days to incorporate a corporate social responsibility activity into meetings, whether it is building a bike for a needy child or pitching in to build a Habitat for Humanity house. The trick can be finding an activity that both resonates with meeting attendees and aligns with the meeting sponsor’s mission.

Clean the World, an organization that recycles used soap from hotels into clean new soap that is distributed around the world to help prevent diarrheal disease and acute respiratory infections, met both criteria for the 8th Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, now called Pharma Forum 2012. Many of the approximately 30 meetings and hospitality professionals who gathered at the Orlando facility prior to the conference’s opening said they had thought about those barely used soap bars in their hotel rooms and how much was wasted, and they were thrilled to know that someone was putting it all to good use.

The activity, which was co-sponsored by Gaylord Hotels and Seaworld, began with a short video outlining the operation. Then Clean the World’s CEO, Shawn Seipler, talked about how he and co-founder Paul Till decided in 2009 to form a 501(c)(3) organization to collect and recycle soap and shampoo products discarded by the hospitality industry and distribute them to those who, because they don’t have access to the products necessary for good hygiene, now die from poor-hygiene-related illnesses around the world daily.

Clean the World’s recycling centers—which are located in Las Vegas, Toronto, and Vancouver, British Columbia, in addition to the headquarters in Orlando—collect used soap from hotels in all 50 U.S. states, 10 Canadian provinces, and Puerto Rico. Hotels, which pay to participate in the Clean the World program, have already donated 10 million bars of soap, which have been sanitized and distributed to more than 45 countries, Seipler said. On-site CSR activities are available only at the Orlando and Las Vegas facilities at this time, though Seipler said that they can work with planners to provide on-site activities. Clean the World also offers a program that planners can employ if their hotel is not donating its used soap that would enable the hotel to participate in the program for the duration of the meeting.

After learning about the operation, it was time to buckle down and get to work. The group formed two assembly lines. Participants in the first line donned gloves and, using butter knives and vegetable peelers, scraped the top layer off of the donated soap that was heaped in boxes and bins throughout the facility. This soap would then continue through the recycling process, which includes soaking the soap in a sterilizing solution, then treating it with a combination of steam and pressure that cleans it of all pathogens. The soaps then are reformed into bars, cooled, and packaged for distribution.

The other assembly line took on a task that is all too familiar to meeting planners: bag stuffing. In this case, however, the bags weren’t conference totes but plastic bags of donated shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and other hygiene amenities that would be shipped to homeless and women’s shelters across the country. Each group took a break to tour the facility, ask questions, and cool off with some shaved ice from a Kona Ice truck conveniently parked in front of the building.

As they scraped and stuffed, learned and listened, participants also found themselves getting to know each other in a way they ordinarily wouldn’t during the course of a conference. Seipler wasn’t surprised; he said teambuilding and bond-forming are to be expected as groups work together on a common cause.

By the end of the afternoon, the Pharma Forum 2012 participants had cleaned and scraped 640 soap bars, built 614 hygiene kits for distribution to homeless shelters throughout the country, gotten to know each other a little better, and earned a sense of satisfaction for having done something to help save lives throughout the world.

See photos from the activity.

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