Fact: we all do it. People flush it down the toilet, chimps fling it at passersby, Google iconicized it as the emoji we all know and love.
Most individuals don’t think twice about excrement. They discharge it from their bodies, spray some Febreze, then continue on their merry way. But at the Elephant PooPooPaper Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, visitors get a whiff of the eco-friendly project that puts this poop to use. Lo and behold, elephant poop fibers can be converted into paper products.
Paper plays a ubiquitous and important role in our daily lives. Throughout history, paper and its precursors have been used to record ideas, stories, and even religious passages. We owe it to paper for penning centuries of world history and cultural traditions. Whether it’s handling money, flipping through a textbook, or painting on a canvas, we interact with this material constantly. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to recall a day when you haven’t utilized paper. Although the advent of the computer and the modern technological age have helped curb our consumption of paper to an extent, it will still be a while before we become an entirely paperless society.
The playful folks at Elephant PooPooPaper Park acknowledge the merits of both poop and paper and have constructed an outdoor museum showcasing this fascinating, alternative, and sustainable enterprise. The park is of modest size, but extremely well-organized and not the slightest bit malodorous. Visitors engage in an interactive walking tour around the main pavilion, following a trail of poop that takes them through the sequential stages of the process. Informative signs and guides are present at each station to explain the steps and instruct you to complete them yourself! This museum is an exception—here, you can touch everything.
Visitors are first whisked to a poo fiber shed, where they receive a crash course on comparative GI anatomy and digestive systems. There are actually two requirements that candidate poop must satisfy if it can successfully partake in this process. First, the poop must come from an herbivore that eats a highly fibrous diet consisting of foods like bamboo, grasses, and sugarcane. Second, the animal must possess a somewhat inefficient digestive system that does not completely digest or break down all the fibers it consumes. As a result, many fibers remain in the poop when it defecates. As a megaherbivore and hindgut fermenter, the elephant meets both these criteria.
Elephants are monogastric animals, meaning they have a simple, single-chambered stomach. Their intestines are short and they have rapid GI transit times—hence, less digestibility of their stomach contents. Interestingly, elephants only sleep for 4-5 hours, so they effectively spend about 18 hours per day standing and eating. Throughout the course of a day, they consume roughly 10% of their body weight then defecate an hour later. With an estimated 800 elephants living in Chiang Mai, one needs a place to dispose of all that poop. The outrageous yet inventive concept developed at this park is the solution to that problem.
Having purchased a paper notepad at their gift shop (aptly named “The Poo-tique”), I was able to document my visit in great detail. Below, I have delineated the steps to this innovative papermaking process:
Cleaning & Boiling
This preliminary stage is critical in priming the poop substrate for subsequent steps. In this preparative phase, feces are submerged in steel drum containers and left to soak for several hours, occasionally stirred with a wooden spatula. Gradually, all non-fiber materials (e.g. dirt, leaves, pebbles) fall to the base of the drum so that only the actual fibers remain afloat. A mesh bamboo net is used to scoop the fibrous material and drain the water, then transferred to a separate boiling pot.
The clean fibers are then boiled to a pulpy stew for 4-6 hours at 90-100°C. These extreme conditions destroy any bacteria present as well as soften the fibers, making them more malleable. The fibers are then formed into patties and left to dry in the sun. The medium used in the cleaning/boiling phases is purely water; no chemical agents like bleach are applied that would be harmful to the environment. While the mainstream paper industry utilizes chlorine to bleach paper into its characteristic white color, chlorine waste can escape into natural water systems and negatively affect fish, mammals, and birds along that food chain.
Mixing & Coloring
Now that the feces have been properly cleaned, the pulp is then placed in a mixing reservoir and blended with other fibers (e.g. mulberry bark, pineapple husks, corn stalks). This thorough incorporation stage imbues the raw pulp with greater cellulose content.
Once the mixture is adequately stirred, color is added with the use of natural, non-toxic dyes. The mixture undergoes several revolutions of churning before being removed from the reservoir. After the water is drained out, the material is divided evenly into portions of similar weight, then gently molded into vibrant, colorful balls.
Screening & Drying
After selecting the colored ball of your choice, you then break apart the rounded portion and manually spread the pulp mixture into a large water-filled basin, where a framed screen lies submerged. The fibers must be dispersed evenly across the entire surface of the framed screen, which will catch the sinking pulp fibers. The screen is subsequently lifted out of the basin and gently tapped as water drips through the holes.
The wooden frame is then carefully placed upright and dried under natural sunlight. After several hours, the newly formed sheet can be easily peeled off the framed screen. You have now successfully converted poop into paper!
Although you have clearly mastered the art of alchemy by this point, don’t wash your hands just yet. The last station is a DIY hut where you can cut your handmade paper into all sorts of shapes and sizes, gluing and decorating to your heart’s content. Plenty of paper products can be fashioned in this artisan shack, from photo albums to journals to greeting cards. I myself opted to make a personalized bookmark and have enjoyed running my fingers along its highly textured surface as I pore through my next mystery novel.
The inventive form of paper production at Elephant PooPooPaper Park is a response to a growing movement and awareness regarding the rapid depletion of natural resources. With the increasing industrialization of our society has come large-scale deforestation and post-consumer waste. For every tree that gets cut down for paper, the seed that gets replanted in its place takes 5-10 years to grow. Not only does our rate of demand for paper far outpace the speed of tree growth, but numerous gallons of water are also consumed during the tree’s germination and maturation. This becomes a serious concern for small towns like Chiang Mai, which already struggles with a limited water supply. Recognition of the need to re-process used paper and diminish waste—coupled with the desire of paper mills to reduce production costs—has prompted eco-conscious innovators to develop new, creative methods of collecting and recycling paper. In the process, significant amounts of water and energy are saved, trees are spared from harvesting, and less toxicity leaches into the environment.
While poop-based paper is not a panacea to the forest depletion wrought by the paper industry, it does help promote recycling efforts and encourages visitors to continue seeking additional, sustainable materials and methods to produce the resources we need. Currently, research is being done on turning elephant poop into compost and harnessing it for electrical energy that can heat homes or fuel cars!
The Elephant PooPooPaper Park cultivates artisanship with an eclectic brand of alternative, tree-free paper—it just happens to be made from dung. It attests to the importance of experimentation and innovation. It conveys statements on sustainability through its unique product offerings. In fact, sustainability is ingrained in every fiber of the park’s operations. The infrastructure of the outdoor museum is comprised of adobe mud bricks, wooden beams made from eucalyptus timber, and roofing weaved from local grasses. Even the chairs in the café are wood reclaimed from discarded shipping crates and spools that were once electrical cable wheels.
Acknowledging that its main premise may be off-putting, this museum attempts to dispel the initial disgust surrounding poop, keeps matters facetious and hands-on, and ultimately promotes a more serious message regarding the importance of sustainability. Accordingly, the park donates part of their proceeds to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading conservation organization. As visitors admire their handmade creations, they are reminded that poop is not necessarily “waste,” but can actually help prevent it.
Now that I’ve exposed all these trade secrets, is your mind blown yet? I’ll give you a moment to digest all of this.
Brown is the new green,