From Poop to Paper

It’s an old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

This often used axiom rings no less true today than in did in the past. In fact, it may be of increasing relevance and significance to those of us who hope to see our Earth avoid the recently popularized epithet “Plastic Planet” in the future.

With this goal in mind, it begs the question of what innovations and changes can our societies adopt to find future prosperity and abundance in sustainable ways? This question recently lead me to visit a popular ecotourist destination outside of Chiangmai, Thailand that strives to promote sustainable paper production practices by integrating traditional knowledge and techniques. Taking the idea of “trash-to-treasure” to its literal extreme, this establishment makes consumer products out of the ultimate form of waste: poop.

The Elephant Poo Poo Paper Park is exactly what it sounds to be: an outdoor compound where the staff take heaps of elephant dung and process it to create beautiful hand-made paper.

A snap of the park courtyard including rows of drying paper and banana trees.

Over the course of a 30 minute tour of the grounds, visitors learn about the Park’s techniques as well as the history of paper making around the world. Beyond witnessing the production process, you can also take part and create your own paper. While the actual tour goes into great detail, how generally can one make beautiful paper from elephant dung?

Step 1: Collect lots of elephant dung! The dung needs to dry to make the fiber easily manipulatable. Believe it or not, it doesn’t smell at all!
Step 2: Dung Soup. Just kidding. This is the purification process for the dung. It is sterilized in boiling water and then rinses through several cylinders to remove bacteria and unwanted particles.
Step 3: Throw it all in the industrial blender to break up the fibers until they are a fine pulp.
Bonus step: Add in old paper scraps for reuses. Once they’re put through the blender they can be reused to make fresh sheets of paper.
Step 4: Pick your color. The Park uses a range of natural dyes to achieve these vibrant hues.
Step 5: Create your paper sheets. A ball of pulp is spread out on a large wooden frame in a vat of water to help evenly distribute the fiber.
Step 6: Leave your paper frame in the sun to dry.
Et violà! You have produced paper out of elephant dung ready to be turned into a myriad of consumer products.
Eg. This awesome passport cover that I made using the provided stencils and pieces arranged for visitors to the Park.
In a nutshell: a simple system diagram of how the Park works.

While the Elephant Poo Poo Paper Park is a fun couple hours for families, ecotourists or students, it also reflects an awareness among some local residents of the need to change unsustainable practice and consumption trends that might hinder Thailand future development.

What are some of the relevant consumption and production trends that threaten Thailand’s ecosystems and citizens’ livelihoods? Despite the fact that Thailand outlawed commercial logging in 1988 after massive flooding across the country, deforestation continues as a pressing issue. According to the World Bank, “forest cover has declines from 53.5% in 1961 to 31.6% in 2014 as a result of population growth, infrastructure development, agricultural expansion, illegal logging and uncontrolled forest fires.” Government policies and initiatives are insufficient to tackle the problems surrounding deforestation, for while they have decreased rates of deforestation, some of these programs have negatively impacted communities and stymied economic development. Especially of concern are issues surrounding indigenous land rights when territorial claims and traditional ways of life conflict with stricter federal policies.

While the elephant paper industry is unlikely to replace the paper industry or make a significant dent in the deforestation debates integral to Thailand’s development, the popularization of a small-scale, local production center like Elephant Poo Poo Paper Park is a promising sign.  Its acclaim speaks volumes about the increased knowledge and awareness among local stakeholders and (hopefully) tourists about the merits of sustainable production. Accessible examples like this are integral to promoting circular economic principles and other mindsets encouraging responsible consumption and production processes, as proposed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Moreover, the interactive nature of the park serves as a meaningful reminder that, contrary to popular belief, sustainable practices can be fun! To get more people thinking creatively about ways to minimize and reduce our waste, maybe we all need to reframe our approach to sustainable production as a type of treasure hunting.

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