They roamed across landscapes evoking tropical temperatures. Hazy yellows and oranges. Strokes of paint stretched across cut-paper trees. In the corner, a single hut. And throughout them all, raised paper elephants.
These designs populated a number of note cards and books, and it was the elephants that grabbed my attention.
The texture felt like handmade paper. Interested, I turned to the back of the cards to learn more.
“My initial reaction was: ‘Oh wow, this is really cool! It’s not on my radar that you can make paper out of things like dung.’”
Debby de Moulpied, owner of Bona Fide Green Goods, described her thoughts on the product in a phone interview.
“And it opened my eyes into paper production,” she continued, “how you can make paper out of a lot of cellulose options.”
It’s a sentiment not all customers share.
“Sometimes the reaction is: ‘Ew, gross.’ Other times, it’s just kind of fascination. And then, of course, there is always the giggle factor. We definitely call that ‘our giggle gift’ in the store.”
The company behind this paper is Mr. Ellie Pooh.
Dr. Karl Wald, co-founder of the company, spoke with me by phone from New York about the origins of this company and his experience in Sri Lanka.
“’Mr. Ellie Pooh’ is how we’re branding here in the U.S. only because it was just a little bit cuter,” he explained when asked about the many names associated with the product.
“We’re branding in Sri Lanka with the name ‘Maximus.’ [Elephas] ‘Maximus’ is the scientific name for elephant. [The idea behind] ‘Peace Paper’ was: we bring peace to the human-elephant conflict if we could give enough jobs in these areas.”
It’s a conflict that appears on every continent in the world: with the growth of human populations, the animal habitat shrinks. Limited resources spark the struggle between species. For elephants throughout Asia and Africa, this conflict threatens their existence. One could, however, say something very similar for those farmers and their families in Sri Lanka whose livelihood is impacted by these animals.
Speaking with Karl Wald, one cannot miss the two things he is passionate about: elephants and Sri Lanka.
“About 10 years ago, I went to Sri Lanka. And I went there as a volunteer for one of these orphanage programs.” But, he continued, “the orphanage programs were not set up for something that I really wanted to do when I got over there.”
So he connected with an elephant veterinarian at the local university. The arrangement was a business one: in exchange for a certain daily sum, the vet agreed to take Dr. Wald with him on his rounds across the country.
That experience was, for Dr. Wald, a “remarkable” one. And it was during this experience that he met the man that would become his partner: Thusitha Ranasinghe.
And it was “after many nights of warm beer and hot curry” that the idea to create Mr. Ellie Pooh formed. He was quick to mention that the origin of the idea—using elephant dung to make paper—was not his own. His friends in Sri Lanka had just started doing this in Kenya.
Dr. Wald described how, after he and Thusitha returned to the United States, a series of events prompted them to try selling this eco-friendly paper locally.
“We opened up a booth in the farmers’ market in downtown Minneapolis, where…the Fair-Trade Movement was just starting to get moving. People liked our product! They thought it was really cute. [In] the following years, I basically quit my job, and I decided to see if we could turn this into something real. So we started working on getting design teams together, and trying to put some artisan work on the items so it gives a little more value to the paper, rather than just making books out of dung-paper. And that’s how we started.”
From a local farmers’ market in Minneapolis, Dr. Wald and Thusitha Ranasinghe have expanded their product to small stores like Bona Fide Green Goods throughout the United States and other countries.
“It’s really the perfect product for a store like ours,” said Debby de Moulpied. “It’s sustainable. It makes the three r’s of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’”
“In the past, about 5% of our dung was coming from wild elephants,” Dr. Wald explained. “[Now] most of our dung comes from the Pinnawala elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, where they have semi-domesticated elephants. And when I say ‘semi-domesticated,’ they’re not being used for the tourist rides or anything. They’re basically brought up to the river and then back to the jungle, and people watch them.”
“We get some printer waste, and then we get some paper from the village. So it’s made from newspaper, cardboard, and then cleaned fiber from [elephant dung]. All dyes are natural dyes, vegetable dyes. The binding process is done by all-natural means. If our paper is put out into the sun, some of the color will fade. We don’t use any harsh chemicals to fix the paper. Everything is hand-made.”
Debby explained that the store uses one of Ellie Pooh’s journals as their email-list sign-up at the cash register. “People are always surprised by how the ink flows nicely on it. [They] really like that quality. It’s not just that it’s something novel.”
“And I’ll point out, ‘See the little grass bits that the elephant would have ingested?’” She laughed. “And so, it’s just kind of fun.”
While many people in the U.S. might not be familiar with paper made from dung, Dr. Wald pointed out that a number of other dung-paper companies have formed over the past decade.
“Most poo paper comes out of Thailand,” he said. “They have a lot of resources, and they have a lot of tourism there. We want [our program] to be just a little bit different. [Our] idea was to promote education about Sri Lanka’s wild elephants.”
When asked if there have been any challenges along the way, he responded, “You need to get money. Capital is always a problem–for every small business, I imagine.”
He described the fear his family had regarding what, inevitably, all businesses do at some time or another: make mistakes.
“If you don’t have the finances to overcome those mistakes,” he said, “you’re going to run into new problems with capital and keeping the operation afloat. We’ve run into that throughout the years, and it’s been a difficult thing to control. But, we’re still around. We’ve been doing this for 9-10 years, so, it’s been great.”
“At our level, we never had any large investors or stores. We’re mostly selling to smaller stores. And we hire about 125 people in Sri Lanka. When I [first] started, there were about 20 [employees].”
But he was very frank. “We haven’t seen any [measurable] difference in actually saving elephants or conserving their habitat. Which is very sad to say. If you have about 100 people hired in the village, it’s not going to make a difference. If you have about 1000 [employees from that same village], then I think that the mindset of people would change. And that’s what we’re essentially trying to do, is trying to create that awareness.”
“Bit-by-bit?” I chimed in. “Little-by-little, correct?”
“Yeah, you know.” And here, humor crept into his voice: “If Costco ever decided they wanted eco-friendly products in there…”
“Our product is more than just a novelty product. We have a program that we’re passionate about and we want everybody to know about.”
“Making paper,” he said, “is a big deal.”
Find out more about Mr. Ellie Pooh here: http://mrelliepooh.com/
Visit Bona Fide Green Goods if you are in Concord, NH: http://www.bonafidegreengoods.com/
An Elephas maxiumus-sized THANK YOU to Debby de Moulpied of Bona Fide Green Goods and to Dr. Karl Wald of Mr. Ellie Pooh!