About the elephant dung
Having to deal with tons of elephant dung can be a bit of a headache, but a touch of innovation has turned it into a profitable business.
The first thing that caught my eye as we were waiting at the entrance of Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka, was a huge orange sign at a small shop beside the orphanage proclaiming: “Poo Paper Sold Here!”
Curiosity got the better of me, and I went to check out the shop after visiting the elephants at the orphanage. The shop, Pinnawala Elephant Dung Paper, turned out to sell just what the sign had said: paper products made from elephant dung.
One animal’s waste being another man’s treasure
Making paper out of excrement? Talk about one animal’s waste being another man’s treasure. Although elephant dung is a waste product, it’s free and a renewable source of raw material. Think about all the trees we can save.
It makes good business sense, and hopefully this will help people to see elephants as assets rather than a liability.
The technology is not that new, actually. In Thailand and South Africa, elephant dung paper generates income which is then channelled back towards elephant conservation. I had to see for myself how this waste is transformed into profitable products, since adjacent to the shop is a small factory that turns dung into paper.
The owner, Sashi Pinnawala, 24, was kind enough to give us a personal tour of his factory and explain the steps in detail.
How is elephant dung being turned to treasure
“Elephant dung is a great source for making paper as elephants are poor digesters of their food. Their diet consists mainly of coconut, jackfruit, banana and fish tale palm leaves, branches, bamboo and fruits. About 60% of what they eat comes straight out the other end, giving us dung that is rich in fibre,” said Sashi.
The paper-making process starts with the collection of dried elephant dung from the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage.
“An average elephant will eat 300kg-320kg of food and excrete roughly 100kg of dung a day which we collect and bring back to our factory. The dried dung is then washed thoroughly with water and disinfectant, leaving only the fibrous materials. The remaining fibre is carefully sorted to remove all non-dung fibres which might have stuck when the dung was collected from the ground,” explained Sashi.
The fibres are then cooked in a giant pot of boiling water to ensure the fibres are clean and soft enough to be beaten into pulp. The boiling process takes at least six hours. The manufacturing process thereafter is similar to that of handmade paper.
“The boiled pulp will be put into our blender where we cut all these fibrous materials to produce a paste. This process takes at least two hours. Colours and dyes can be added to the paste to make different coloured paper,” said Sashi.
The process of making paper out of the dung
About 200gm of paste is poured and spread on a flat sieve-like mesh to make one sheet of paper. The trays containing the sheets of paper will be leaned against the tree, allowing it to dry naturally for a few hours. Direct sunlight is not good for drying the sheets unless they are white as the colour fades under the sun.
Once dry, the sheet of paper is peeled from the mesh and is ready to be turned into various paper products.
“We can make about 25 large sheets of paper from a single piece of elephant dung. Roughly 115 sheets of paper can be obtained from one elephant a day and we can produce between 150 and 200 sheets of paper a day. A typical journal notebook of 8” x 6” x ¾” uses 10 large sheets of paper,” explains Sashi.
One thing to note about dung paper is that it doesn’t smell like poo. I’ve smelt dried elephant dung before and it is basically odourless. The paper is eco-friendly, bacteria- and acid-free as well because no chemicals are used in the process.
Pinnawala Elephant Dung Paper currently has over 80 unique items in their collection, such as photo frames, photo albums, book marks, small storage boxes for keepsakes, gift bags, wine bags, journals, greeting cards and elephant figures. Most of their customers are tourists from the UK who drop by their store after visiting the orphanage.
A thriving business
Sashi has been running the highly successful business for the past two years and plans to bring it to other countries.
“It’s a family business as my grandfather, who used to be a government minister for more than 20 years, is the founder of the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. That’s why we have such good ties with the orphanage.
We are actually looking to bring the business to Kuala Lumpur as we believe there would be a good market for our products there. We would need to find the right business partner and the proper location first,” said Sashi.
Sashi Pinnawala can be contacted at Pinnawalaelephantdungpaper@yahoo.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or +94 35 226 5258 (office) and +94 77 906 9664 (mobile).