Soaper Hero

Legal Counsel for Swire Hotels, Justen Li, lives a double life. By day you find him in meeting rooms discussing the finer points of the law. In his spare time as Chairman of Soap Cycling, Justen rolls up his sleeves, recycles soap and redistributes it to people in need. Swire News spoke to him about the synergy of these two different roles.

How did you get involved with Soap Cycling?

In 2011, I was in my final year at university studying business and law. I was talking with one of my professors, David Bishop (Founder of Soap Cycling), and we agreed that there were not enough opportunities for students to learn on the ground. David suggested several ideas, including recycling soap. I thought that sounded interesting, so we got started and I was in the first batch of student interns in Soap Cycling. Once I graduated from university, I temporarily stepped away from Soap Cycling, just volunteering occasionally. In 2018, David asked me to sit on the board and a year later I was asked to be the chairman of the organisation. This was around the time I joined Swire.

How does Soap Cycling work?

One of the best things about soap is that you don't get infected or transfer viruses through a bar of soap. We simply scrape the surface of the soap to remove any debris or dyes and to make it nicer and cleaner looking. In theory, once the scraped bars of soap are ready, we could redistribute them – but instead, we run them through a machine that breaks everything down, reheats and remoulds. It becomes a new bar of soap. We then distribute soap to the needy. We have very strong links to local, national, and international services.

That's the story of the soap, but for us the founding mission wasn't just the recycling bit. It was to engage with different parts of the community. The founding mission is on the empowerment side, for minorities, elderly and youth. We pay them to come into the warehouse and teach volunteers how to recycle soap. We want to give them a chance to connect with different sectors of the community.

What is the relationship and synergy between Swire and Soap Cycling?

There's a tremendous overlap between my day job and this project, simply by the nature of both. Over the last few years, Swire Hotels have been donating soap for recycling. During COVID, The Upper House also promoted staycation packages and part of the proceeds went to support projects that we were involved with fighting COVID. I really appreciated that.

Swire Trust and their volunteers are also very supportive to us. As we wanted to roll out a programme that helps minorities in Hong Kong, we employed members of the Pakistani community to teach Swire Trust volunteers how to recycle soap and make hygiene kits. We then went out on a community tour in Kwai Ching to distribute the kits to those in need. They got a chance to walk through the Pakistani neighbourhoods and enjoy good food together. This is an interaction with a vision: to empower ethnic minority community members with skills; to give them a wage they deserve and a chance to meet people from other communities in Hong Kong. We encourage Swire staff to get involved, not just to contribute to society, but to learn something new in their life. All in all, I really appreciate the support from Swire.

What impact has Soap Cycling made for the environment and during the pandemic?

Without Soap Cycling's intervention, the bars of partially used hotel soap would go to landfill. We have instead recycled millions of bars of soap over the last nine years and helped reduce such waste.

We also recycle small plastic bottles of toiletries, which cannot normally be recycled as they are too difficult to clean at major recycling plants. We utilize the power of volunteers, to squeeze out all the contents so our partner plastic recycler can recycle the plastic.

Soap Cycling was able to make a positive impact during a difficult time. During the first three months of COVID we went out to distribute soap, hand sanitiser and masks to 3,500 street cleaners.
Soap Cycling was able to make a positive impact during a difficult time.
The finished product.

What are the challenges of maintaining your two roles?

To combine a middle management job for Swire with a leadership position at Soap Cycling takes a lot of heart and mental strength. You need to balance your life and take enough time off, as well as to balance controlling and expressing your emotions.

Every day there are difficulties. But it is also fun to work through problems. Lawyers like me are often better at paperwork – so it is good to have a chance to broaden my horizon and other soft skills. It's not a black and white thing, you need to get into the different mind-sets of different people and build connections.

I always find it enriching to join in projects, with people soldiering together. Everyone has their restrictions in terms of time and resources but when everybody shares just whatever they have – that's where the beauty is.
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