Paper from poop
Colombo | Sri Lanka
Paper from elephant poo... how come?
Thusitha Ranasinghe: My family had a printing business. In 1997 I decided to try something new and get involved in recycling waste paper. We started to put banana and other fibres that were available in the proximity. The original idea of elephant dung came from Africa, I got inspired to try. We were first to make paper commercially out of elephant dung. It was not easy, that time there was not much hype about conservation or environment, in fact places like supermarkets in England required us to produce boards completely out of virgin pulp, they didn't want any recycle materials in their packages.
Didn't people think you are crazy?
Of course, my parents didn't believe in it at all. But my sister did, we started together with her and two friends. Our objective was to try to make money while doing something beneficial for the planet and the people. And eventually our customers liked it. We focused mainly on handmade paper, that was something new, which allowed us to customize products. With handmade paper you are able to do small batches, few samples adjusted to client needs. That's very unique. But it has to be said that the first thing most people do when they see our products is to... smell them.
But there is no bad smell.
No. No bad smell and all in all a lot of good for the community and environment around. It motivates us a lot to keep going. We take rubbish and create beautiful products with local artists. We don't use any toxic material in our production. We have solar panels in the factory. We don't use child labour. 80% of our work force are women. We hire people from local areas, most of them can come to work walking.
Do you also sell locally?
It changes overtime. At the beginning we exported a lot, during the Sri Lankan war (Ed. a long-lasting civil conflict ended in 2009) 80% of our market was abroad. After the war people started to come, tourism was booming so we switched almost entirely to the local market. Everything was growing fast, we started with 7 people including me, now we have 150. Last year, due to the bombs (Ed. The so-called Easter Bombing, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that killed 259 people on Easter Sunday 2019), tourism went down again, for a few months I had to take a loan to be able to pay salaries. In future we want to balance local and international markets.
What are other future plans?
In the near future we will focus on a new project with Tetra Pak. They chose us as a partner to do commercial recycling of their cartons to prevent them from ending up in landfill. That's big for us, we can mix cartons with our paper to make it more resistant, better quality. Cartons have much stronger fibre.
As for the long term, once we manage to come back to financial stability, we would like to invest more in conservation, planting trees. We are looking for an NGO specialized in that field to collaborate with.
Do you also collaborate with NGOs to get elephant dung?
We take it mostly from elephant orphanages. 12 elephants produce around 1 tonne of dung every day, we can make 70.000 sheets of paper from it. That's a lot.
How did things change since you started?
First of all recycling became a thing. Young generations are more sensitive. They are very passionate, involved, they want to recycle, they act for the environment. I got 14 years old twins. They follow social media, TV, they know what is happening in the world. They are inspired by Greta Thumberg and they are 100% on everything they do. It is the young generations which brought segregation of rubbish and recycling to Sri Lanka, 5 years ago nobody was doing that. This gives recycling a big future. There is a lot you can do with it, also commercially.
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