An elephant can defecate 16 times in one day—and its 200 pounds of dung can double as paper pulp.
BY ZINARA RATHNAYAKE for Atlas Obscura
GROWN-UP ELEPHANTS CAN EAT MORE than 300 pounds of food—mostly grass, twigs, foliage, and tree bark—in a single day. In the same period, they may defecate 16 to 18 times, producing over 200 pounds of dung. In Randeniya, a small village in the lower wetlands of Sri Lanka, elephant poop is a renewable resource. The sun-dried, deep-brown dung piles up like haystacks in a painting by Claude Monet.
Visitors could be forgiven for thinking that the poop is useless. But at Eco Maximus, a manufacturer in Randeniya, it takes on a second life. More than 20 years ago, a man named Thusita Ranasinghe saw some dung and had an idea. “He thought he could make paper from it,” says the company’s brand designer, Susantha Karunarathne, with a smile. At his office inside the company factory, Karunarathne wears a green t-shirt which says #elephantdungpaper and shows off some of his recent journal designs.
On a table nearby, a several women carefully design covers for multi-sized notebooks. On another, the finished product is packed and ready to be shipped. Today, Maximus creates a range of stationery and souvenirs, which are sold in the local market and in 30 other countries around the globe.
Eco Maximus was an early producer of elephant dung paper, and the first in Sri Lanka, and refining the manufacturing process involved a lot of trial and error. Elephant dung is brought in by nearby rescue centers, Karunarathne says during a tour of the factory. Fresh elephant dung, semi-solid and green in color, smells. But after it dries under the hot tropical sun, the smell disappears. Collectors gather the deep-brown, fiber-rich piles in a piping-hot steam boiler. “We boil for one hour, to ensure that the dung is germ-free,” says Vibhatha Wijeratne, the factory manager, wearing a pair of yellow gloves as he shows me a pile of boiled dung.
In one corner of the factory, bundles of paper with crumpled edges are stacked upon each other. There are different colors—earthy tones, blues, tropical greens, and deep reds. Thousands of years ago, much of the writing in Sri Lanka was inscribed on stones. Later, the islanders wrote on leaves, such as the fronds of the palmyrah palm, locally known as the tal. “Palmyrah leaves were boiled and sun-dried for writing, which was called pus kola (old leaves),” says bright-eyed Randika Jayasinghe, who teaches biosystems technology at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
Conventional papermaking began after Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British, who referred to the island as Ceylon. Most paper uses wood pulp as the main material, which is fibrous and rich in lignin and cellulose. “It is prepared by chemically and mechanically separating fibers from wood,” Jayasinghe says. “These chemicals are then released as wastewater.” The problem is that nearly 4 billion trees are cut down every year to manufacture paper. Some are farmed, but others are logged from managed and old-growth forests. “Since paper is biodegradable, we consider it to be eco-friendly compared to plastics,” Jayasinghe says. But it comes at a significant environmental cost.