Elephant-poo paper

While I was in Laos last year I took a day trip from Luang Prabang to a nearby village where the locals were making paper. Their raw material was somewhat unusual: elephant poo.

Paper-making always begins with fibres which are stirred up in a slurry, spread out in a thin layer and dried. That’s about all there is to it, in fact, apart from controlling colour, thickness and surface finish. Vegetable fibre has been used ever since papermaking was invented in ancient China (details from Wikipedia. Papyrus, by the way, is not quite paper because it does not pass through the slurry stage – Wikipedia explains that here).

The first major step in the process is separating the cellulose fibres, which are all that is needed, from the rest of the plant. Industrial paper production does it via expensive mechanical or chemical pulping, but guess what herbivores can’t digest? Cellulose. That realisation led to a whole new way of looking at elephant poo and turned it from a problem into a resource.

When I visited the village I saw the latter stages of production, with cleaned fibres floating in tubs of water being ladled out onto silk-screen frames, put out to dry in the sun, and turned into finished products: tissue paper, cards and envelopes, sketch-books and so on.

paper maker washing a fabric screen
Preparing the screen
Screens of new paper drying against a fence
Paper drying on the screen. Flowers and leaves are floated onto the slurry for decorative effects

Other small businesses in the village included silk weavers and wood carvers.

Silk weavers working on hand looms
Silk weavers at work in the village

More: A magazine article (formatting is wonky but content is good), probably about this project which was not the village I visited but is nearby. Also, on Treehugger, a Sri Lankan project written up nicely and with useful further links.

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