When I mention paper made from elephant poo (or dung, if you prefer), most people get a horrified look on their faces. (If you’ve already heard of the paper, what was YOUR first reaction?) Everything from business cards to Christmas greetings can be printed on the stuff, which is a bit linen-y, quite soft, and takes color brilliantly. There’s not just one, but two companies that make ‘poo paper’; Mr. Ellie Pooh and Elephant Dung Paper both offer a number of printed and plain paper products. And yes, the poop is treated for any nasties as part of the paper-making process.
One of the best — and simultaneously frustrating — parts of being human, is how totally sensible we are sometimes (stop lights and standing on lines, so smart!), and how totally insensible we are at others. Take the recycling of water; in California, water reuse is de rigueur for parts of Orange County and San Diego – but it took a loooong fight to get to the point where water could be recycled. So-called toilet-to-tap facilities just plain freaked people out. And not due to hardcore scientific objections, but because people in the area deemed it “gross.”
Interestingly, the original impetus behind Mr. Ellie Pooh and Elephant Dung Paper wasn’t sustainable packaging (that was an added bonus), but the fact that in Sri Lanka, unlike most other areas of the world, there are an abundance of elephants – so much so that they’re considered a nuisance. Creating a market for their excrement makes them valuable to the local people. And elephants, being large, poop a lot. So poo paper was a no brainer!
Because elephants are vegetarian animals, their dung is pretty much just dried-out plants that are partially digested, much like horse droppings. But there are more uses for the cheap, cellulose-rich material than just paper. If processed more thickly, boxes can be made of the excrement, and naturally, these containers are totally biodegradable. But so’s regular cardboard, you say? Well yes, but since elephant poop is a natural by-product from the animal, when it’s not used, it pretty much goes to waste, unlike wood pulp, where the tree has to grow, be cut down, hauled to a mill, and undergo an energy-intensive process to become paper or cardboard. Basically, the elephant does the first few steps for us, so poo paper uses much less energy to create. And it’s free for those who want to collect it!
Artists have also utilized the medium; Chris Ofili, a Nigerian painter, added ellie doodoo to his creations. His idea was that elephants – and their waste – are part of his native place, and therefore deserved inclusion in a work of art by an artist from that locale. He is most notorious for his painting of the Virgin Mary that included dung (and, to be fair, pornographic images) that became one of those “Is this really art if I don’t understand it?” firestorms.
But others have used the dung more practically, such as in this pair of crazy-looking experimental shoes (OK, very experimental!) made of the stuff. Point is, you can do a lot with dung. Other applications could include padding or stuffing for packing materials, lampshades, or any design where texture and translucency are valued.
Turns out elephants aren’t the only ones with usable poop. Sheep poo can also be made into various paper products! The makers of Sheep Poo Paper cheekily remind us that “Every letter you send is like sending a little piece of Wales,” which when you think about it, is literally true! Ew? Ewe!
Most interestingly for this blog, snail excrement was used to package pre-cooked escargot for safe and protected travel. Though the snails probably wouldn’t like being shipped in their own poo, what a novel (and waste-free) way to package the delicate gastropods. So, why not other fragile things? And check out the amazing colors the snails can turn out.
Of course packaging isn’t the only useful thing that can be done with poo; this car runs on it (literally!). I predict that in the future, people will wonder why we wasted so much perfectly good crap!
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)