My Soap Making Story

Soap: it’s that important, and it’s the reason why Soap Cycling exists. It is the reason why our founder, David Bishop, empowered a group of HKU undergraduate students to startup and operate Asia’s largest and longest-running soap recycling charity. For 6 years, Soap Cycling has been creating tremendous impact here in Hong Kong and cross Asia, partnering with hundreds of hotels across 6 countries to help the less fortunate and conserve our Earth’s precious resources by collecting, reprocessing, and distributing lightly-used hotel amenities.

As a student-run charity with a constant churn of bright, ambitious, and passionate young people eager to make a difference each semester, Soap Cycling has no shortage of exciting new projects with the potential to transform our operations in a short time. Over the past six years we have perfected our model of moving things around, managing volunteers, and making sure the soap gets to those in need. This semester the new interns were confronted with a question: How do we push the boundaries? How do we go beyond our norm and advance toward something bigger?

The answer lies between two elements that can never mix: Oil and Water. Notorious for existing at the opposite ends of the chemical spectrum, these two enemies can be transformed into mankind’s most important invention when combined with a vital inorganic compound called sodium hydroxide, or better known as lye.

The author, Soap Cycling fall 2018 HR intern Sherlin Wongso, mixing a batch of beer soap with the Nesbitt Centre Oct 22, 2018

Making soap from scratch was a brand new and unprecedented direction for our company as well as a huge challenge for me this semester. However, I took up the challenge with gusto and spent many nights after class researching the ins and outs of the DIY soap movement. Just imagine a little kid with a frozen yogurt machine all to herself – eyes glistening with desire, tummy grumbling with excitement, heart all content because she can create and eat all the frozen yogurt she wants – amazing. With Soap Cycling’s help, now I too could bring all of my creative soap making experiments into fruition and let the various colors of my creativity run wild.

I kick started this project by reaching out to my dearest friends - Google and Youtube - to obtain all the necessary information. After a large amount of research was done, I proceeded to purchase various oils (olive, grapeseed, coconut, and vegetable) to try diverse combinations. Ticking off the last checkbox, I headed off to Sheung Wan, where I sought for sodium hydroxide - the vital component which sparks harmony into the mix.

Apart from oil, water, and lye, Soap Cycling was looking for something extra to add to the mix and set their product apart. A local craft brewer in our neighborhood, Yardley Brothers, offered to provide the waste products of beer making - malt, hops, barley - to add to our soap. Soap Cycling has a commitment to reusing whatever waste materials are at hand - literally turning trash into treasure - to keep them from ending up in Hong Kong's crowded landfills. And as students we'll take any excuse to walk over for a free beer after a volunteer session! 

Soap Cycling warehouse manager, Matthew Mo, posing with the beer waste products collected at the Yardley Bros brewery in Kwai Hing October 9, 2018

Our next step was production. Soap Cycling works together with many corporates and other community organisations to organise volunteer sessions and help them to process wasted hotel materials - soap, bottles, fabric - into usable goods for the less fortunate across Asia. For our soap making project, we worked with the Nesbitt Centre, a local day centre in Sai Ying Pun for special needs adults, to help us try out some recipes. The participants all had a great time mixing the chemicals and trying out new combinations. You have to be careful! The lye can leave serious skin burns if handled improperly.

Soap Cycling fall 2018 HR intern Michelle Kam holding a finished batch of beer soap at the Credit Suisse offices October 26, 2018

Next we went to the offices of one of Soap Cycling's biggest supporters, Credit Suisse. High on the 88th floor of the International Commerce Centre (ICC) in Kowloon, the tallest building in Hong Kong and 11th tallest in the world, to run a Global Handwashing Day event with the employees. We all took turns mixing the soap and adding the ingredients until we were satisfied with that everything was combined properly.

Here's a look at the results!

Grapeseed Oil and Beer Malt Soap

We wanted to keep our first batch of soap natural and environmentally friendly by using recycled materials. It might seem like a peculiar choice, beer soap, but people have been adding these ingredients to soap for centuries. The the results were all-natural, lightly scented and milky smooth soap bars. Beer contains amino acid and Vitamin B which softens, moisturize, and soothes irritated, inflamed skin. In addition, the properties in beer malt has an antibacterial agent, perfectly tailored to combat acne on skin.

Olive and Coconut Oil Oat Soap

These bars of soap were made with olive (oil) and coconut oil, topped off with steeled oats which exfoliate, moisturize, and calm the skin from inflammation and irritation. Having tried the bars of soap myself, I can testify on how incredibly smooth and gentle they feel on the skin. In addition, I would recommend these soaps for those looking for a natural and friendly alternative to commercial soaps for sensitive skin.

Our soaps captured demand in the market for handmade soaps. We sold several bars to our first-few customers through a Christmas market. We couldn’t be more delighted and humbled by people showing support and love toward our new product.

This first chapter of soap making has been written by me, but surely the endeavors ought to not end here. Blank pages are awaiting to be filled by our next bright interns and with that said, I am assured that they will narrate Soap Cycling’s Soap Making Story for an even brighter (and cleaner) future.

Soap Cycling volunteers Nuri and Grace hold up their wares to passing customers during a Zombie Run fundraising event at HKU November 25, 2018