Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Elephant dung paper: Indian papermaker gives elephant poop new cachet

A thousand-mile journey begins with a single step. Sometimes that step leaves a little something on your shoe.
Vijender Shekhawat's big break came while visiting a shrine near the Amber Fort in Jaipur, as he glanced down at the pile of elephant dung he had just failed to avoid. A struggling maker of handmade paper, he noticed that the texture of the plant-eating animal's manure was a lot like wood pulp.
Eureka! he thought. Pachyderm poop paper.
His family thought something else: He was stark-raving mad. Shekhawat, 29, came from a storied warrior caste of bejeweled rulers and decorated generals. Sure, the lineage had slipped a bit, but what would the neighbors think?
'We came from a dynasty that used to sit on thrones," said his mother, Kaushalya Kanwar. "All we could think was, 'How far have we fallen?'"
His principal buyer was also skeptical.
"This is too strange," Mahima Mehra, head of papermaker Papeterie Co., recalls thinking. "It's bizarre."
But Shekhawat persevered despite early failures. At 100% dung, the paper didn't hold together. At 50% dung and 50% cotton, it was too brittle. After many months, he settled on a 75% dung-25% cotton mix and he was on his way. (Don't worry; the dung is washed first.)
Mehra also warmed to the idea after researching it and finding that it was made in Thailand, Sri Lanka and South Africa, among other places.
To counter cynics, they referenced Ganesha, an elephant-headed Hindu god, arguing that there was no harm in recycling divine waste.
Religion runs everything in this country," Mehra said. "Suddenly, scores of people wanted to work with the stuff.


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