Turning elephant dung into paper

Monday, 07 May, 2007

A Sri-Lankan company that turns elephant dung into eco-friendly paper won a global competition for projects that benefit local communities and the environment. Maximus, based in Kegalle in the foothills of Sri Lanka's central mountainous region, beat more than 800 other projects from 120 countries to win the World Challenge 2006 and a $20,000 grant from Shell.

The scheme helps to improve the future for elephants, which are seen as competing with a growing human population for land. Sri Lanka's elephant population of about 3000 is dwindling due to poaching and conflict with farmers who view them as hungry pests.

The initiative tries to bring change by hiring rural people to collect elephant dung so the animals are seen as a benefit to the local community by providing work and helping to reduce poverty. Maximus, which was founded six years ago, also provides work for 35 employees.

Once it is cleaned, mashed into a pulp and pressed, fibre-rich elephant dung creates beautifully textured, chlorine- and acid-free papyrus-like paper.

"Elephants are the ultimate eco-friendly paper mill. They do with their stomachs with enzymes what a paper mill does with chemicals," Maximus founder Thusitha Ranasinghe said after the awards ceremony in The Hague on 6 December 2006.

Each 10 kg of dung makes about 640 A4-size sheets of paper. Used for calendars and corporate stationery to greeting cards, the paper is completely clean. The elephants' diet, age and dental state give each batch of paper a unique texture and colour, but no smell. Fully-digested fibre gives the paper a smooth finish while half-digested fibre produces a coarser paper.

Two-runners up in the World Challenge, run by the BBC and Newsweek, received $10,000 each. Second prize went to Cards from Africa, a company that markets greeting cards made by a poor Rwandan community and runs initiatives to help survivors of the genocide in 1994.

The third winning project eliminates arsenic from the water supply in parts of Bangladesh. Dalit, a non-government organisation, locates and taps rare sources of pure water, installs filtration systems and researches herbal remedies for arsenic-related diseases. Long-term exposure to even small quantities of the poison can lead to skin lesions, localised gangrene and eventually cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder and kidneys.

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