Tristan Corriveau grew up on Orr’s Island, where he spent a lot of time in the woods and waters. Protecting that environment is part of what inspired the One Gallon Soap Company, the business he launched in early 2016, reclaiming used hotel soap from Portland-area hotels and turning it into liquid soap he sells back to hotels, as well as to restaurants and retailers. We talked to him about figuring out the right “recipe,” why he has an autoclave on his kitchen counter and what bumps along the way taught him about running a business built on the premise of sustainability.

BATHROOM BRAINSTORM: Corriveau and his wife were at a hotel in Boston a few years ago when he had a brainstorm in the bathroom. “I was washing my hands that morning and I was kind of thinking, this is a full bar of soap,” he said. A small one, but still. “What happens to these?” He did his research and learned about Clean the World, which collects used soap from hotels and institutions, sterilizes, reshapes and distributes the new “used” bars to areas in need. He wondered, in tourist-centric Portland, is there room to do something like this locally, except without charging a fee to the people providing the used soap, the way Clean the World does? “I don’t want to compete with Clean the World at all. I think what they do is amazing.” If he could eliminate the part where the soap got shipped to the organization’s Florida home base, that would be a sustainability savings too, he reasoned.

PRESS FORWARD: His first stop, on a February day in 2016, was the Press Hotel in downtown Portland. “I walked up to the front desk and asked them what they did with their used soap.” The immediate response, “Throw it away, but we’re looking to change that, do you want it?” “I said, ‘I do want it,’ but I was thinking, ‘Oh crap, what do I do with this now?’ ” For one thing, he wasn’t expecting to be handed soap right away; he already had (and still has) a day job with Kraft Heinz, doing in-store sales partnerships. For another, he wasn’t quite sure what he’d do with the soap. He got the idea to turn the remnants into liquid hand soap, which he could sell locally. But he was aware that liquid hand soap has a bad rap, compared to bar soap, in terms of wastefulness. “The liquid hand soap market could be a little more environmentally friendly.” He committed to the concept of selling whatever he made in bulk, a whole gallon. “To cut back on plastic use.” (That commitment has been tested by customers, who found the gallon jugs too big and unwieldly, so One Gallon Soap Company is also sold now in a 16-ounce glass container.)

POWER WASH: Thanks to the DIY community, he found plenty of YouTube videos offering instructions on turning bar soap into liquid. But before he even started considering recipes he knew he had to get the used soap clean, and not just with a hand brush to remove the obvious, like hair and dust. “I reached out to the USM biology department.” A University of Southern Maine professor suggested a student who could do some trial runs at sterilizing the soap with an autoclave. They tested the soap by infecting it with germs, putting it in the autoclave and then confirming that the toxin had been killed. Corriveau needed an autoclave, an object he’d never considered before. “I didn’t even know what they were.” The prices for the equipment, which uses steam to sterilize, started at $5,000, Corriveau said. He applied for and received a grant from the Libra Foundation.

RECIPE TESTING: Meanwhile, he’d been recipe testing at home, grinding up the soap in a food processor and cooking it in a vat on the stove. “It looks like skim milk.” Then he’d let it sit for a few days before blending it with a little baking soda. Getting something that was shelf stable was a challenge. The DIY community was using their bar-to-liquid products at home, where it didn’t matter so much. He placed some of his soap around Portland, including at the Press Hotel and at Salvage BBQ and reports back weren’t good. “Their customers are going into the bathroom and saying the soap isn’t working.” He got another assist from USM, this time from the chemistry department,but continued to struggle until a friend who is a biochemist and works at a biotech company joined him in the venture. “I told her, ‘I really need help with this. I am not successful at this scientific side of the business.’ ”

IN & OUT: She joined him in January, and it has made a big difference. “We have made a ton of progress on shelf life and consistency. We’re still learning. But we are creating a soap product right now that is pretty awesome.” Corriveau picks up soap from the Press Hotel still, and also from the Hyatt on Fore Street. For the moment, he’s got enough soap coming in. And a fair amount of it going out. The Press uses the hand soap. Salvage BBQ continues to buy it. He sells it at Handle It! on Forest Avenue, on his website and is looking into selling it at the Portland Farmers’ Market. The Portland Food Co-op should be stocking it by mid-October, he said. “And we do little events around town.”

THINK POSITIVE: That Orr’s Island upbringing contributed to his interest in sustainability, but so did his education, which includes degrees from the University of New Hampshire and somewhere more local. “I went to high school at Waynflete, and everyone there is just very aware of our impact on the world. Today, even more than ever, it is super relevant to think about ways to have a more positive impact.” That’s motivated him even when a side business involving soap was starting to seem too hard. “There have been plenty of moments where I have been like, ‘Yeah, I am done with this.’ But in some ways this isn’t about me. It’s about the bigger problems that affect everyone. It really gets back to that environmental piece. I know how much soap gets thrown away.”

SMELL OF SUCCESS: If you think he’s exaggerating, Corriveau picks up about 80 pounds of soap from the Press Hotel alone every week. The housekeepers dump the soaps into a container when they’re cleaning vacated rooms and collect them in closets on each floor. Those containers get emptied into a 15-gallon bin in a downstairs closet, which is what Corriveau picks up. After he’s cooked it down, it comes back to the Press Hotel to be used elsewhere in the hotel, in those big gallon jugs. It’s got no fragrance or color, but it carries a trace of the soap it once was. “It actually gets carried through. It’s kind of subtle. I like it because is not an overpowering scent, like ‘fall leaves’ or whatever.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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Twitter: MaryPols

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