In Pictures: Where elephants help make paper

Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
Workers at Eco Maximus in Sri Lanka create recycled paper using discarded paper fiber and elephant dung. After pressing the paper to extract excess water, workers hang sheets to dry, one by one. During monsoon season it can take up to three days to dry.

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For three generations, Thusitha Ranasinghe’s family navigated the world of international paper imports. But 24 years ago, the Sri Lankan printer had a revolutionary idea. What if he made his own paper with an ecologically friendly process that used local fibers? His choice of source material drew skepticism from others in his community. He planned to craft the paper out of elephant dung. 

The idea turned out to be far from absurd.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes fresh ideas can seem ridiculous. But in Sri Lanka, a papermaker who incorporates elephant dung into his products shows that even wild ideas can pay off.

In a country with 2,500-4,000 wild elephants, there is no shortage of droppings. And due to the pachyderm’s incomplete digestive system, the heaps of waste contain a high percentage of intact fibers, making it a perfect raw material for paper production. What’s more, the idea also managed to ease some of the conflict between elephants and locals by creating employment opportunities in rural areas and shifting local perceptions of elephants as a threat.

The company sources its dung from the Millennium Elephant Foundation, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to the well-being of domestic elephants. Each day, foundation volunteers deliver four wheelbarrows full of fresh dung to the factory.

Click the “deep read” button above for a visual tour of the papermaking process.

For three generations, Thusitha Ranasinghe’s family navigated the world of international paper imports. But 24 years ago, the Sri Lankan printer had a revolutionary idea. What if he made his own paper with an ecologically friendly process that used local fibers? His choice of source material drew skepticism from others in his community. He planned to craft the paper out of elephant dung. 

The idea turned out to be far from absurd.

In a country with 2,500-4,000 wild elephants, there is no shortage of droppings. And due to the pachyderm’s incomplete digestive system, the heaps of waste contain a high percentage of intact fibers, making it a perfect raw material for paper production. What’s more, the idea also managed to ease some of the conflict between elephants and locals by creating employment opportunities in rural areas and shifting local perceptions of elephants as a threat.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes fresh ideas can seem ridiculous. But in Sri Lanka, a papermaker who incorporates elephant dung into his products shows that even wild ideas can pay off.

Since launching Eco Maximus in 1997 with seven workers and a small factory in Kegalle, Mr. Ranasinghe now employs more than 120 people in various locations throughout the country.

The company sources its dung from the Millennium Elephant Foundation, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving the well-being of domestic elephants. Each day, foundation volunteers arrive at the company’s factory door with four wheelbarrows full of fresh dung, and from there, the recycling paper process begins. 

Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
Senerath Bandara, one of the factory’s original workers, mixes elephant dung that has been dried in the sun and boiled to kill bacteria with recycled paper to produce a pulp.
Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
The resulting slurry has a texture similar to oats. Most of the current production uses a 50% mix of dung and recycled paper. About a third of the paper is 100% dung and is used for boxes and photo frames.
Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
The pulp mixture is poured into a large sink filled with water where it is spread evenly across a submerged screen stretched across a wooden frame. When the frame is lifted from the water, a thin layer of pulp remains across the screen. Sheets of cloth are used to separate screens as they are stacked until they can be passed through a press to drain excess water.
Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
Each sheet must air-dry individually. Once dried, paper sheets are smoothed and a meticulous manufacturing process begins – all by hand. Some cut, others add small details with molds, others glue, others put the pieces together, and others paint.

Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
Sanjara Kumara, who has been with the company since its founding, supervises packaging. Every final product, be it a greeting card, notepad, book, or stationery, will be unique as it is made by hand.

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