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At Green America's Green Business Conference in San Francisco last November, Karl Wald's green-biz peers voted Mr. Ellie Pooh the green business of the year for 2008.
"Without a doubt, that is our greatest achievement," says Karl, "We have been working real hard to keep our program moving forward, and it is certainly great to have someone notice. It also reinforces the idea that it has all been worth it."
We asked Karl to tell us more about the business of making elephant-poo paper, and how choosing an Ellie Pooh notecard helps preserve our forests, provide jobs in Sri Lanka, and save the elephants.
Green America: What does your business do, and what are your most popular products?
Karl serves as elephant
dentist for a day.
Karl Wald: Mr. Ellie Pooh is a new eco-friendly company that sells exotic gifts, stationery, office supplies and other sustainable paper products, all partially made from elephant dung! Through our sales, we support “project peace paper,” a Sri Lankan conservation program aimed at providing jobs in areas where elephants are being destroyed. Together with our paper partners (Maximus, located in Colombo, Sri Lanka), we have grown and developed paper facilities placed in human/elephant conflict areas of Sri Lanka.
As far as popular gift items go, it’s a tossup between our greeting cards and our note boxes. Our cards are to die for and are blank inside, so they can be used for any occasion. Our note boxes are our most functional products. Instead of using Post-Its, why not use poo paper? These items work well as teacher/office gifts but are beautiful enough to place in your home next to the phone. All of Mr. Ellie Pooh’s gift items are handcrafted works of art. Our design teams, made up of about 50 Sri Lankan artisans, are always evolving in their skills and work. This has given us the ability to personalize and update many of our product lines.
What makes your business green?
Sri Lankan paper artisan Nirosha displays her various hues of elephant-dung paper.
Karl: Mr. Ellie Pooh’s paper products are 100-percent recycled. They are made up of 75-percent elephant dung, and 25-percent post-consumer paper. There are no toxic chemicals used in our paper-making process. Natural vegetative binding agents, along with water soluble salt dyes for coloring are used. Mr. Ellie Pooh’s papers are handmade, acid-free, and as organic as it gets.
Elephants around the world are massively decreasing in numbers, with less and less ability to survive in a natural environment. Farm produce has become a growing and necessary human resource, thus shrinking the elephant’s natural grazing grounds of trees. Elephants are not favored as neighbors as they destroy valued crops and are often shot and killed. Mr. Ellie Pooh and Maximus feel that if we are able to provide fair-wage jobs making paper, this will give value to having elephants. These noble beasts don’t have to be considered threats or pests, they can be economic assets too.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Karl: I am a biochemist by trade. I received my PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine. After getting my degree I worked for a couple of years as a research scientist for the USDA. Working in science was cool; it was a life that taught me how to think. I wanted a little bit more out of life: adventure, and a chance to make a difference in this world.
Just finishing up my post-doc at the USDA, I decided I needed a change of scenery. I took off to Sri Lanka to shadow an elephant veterinarian, Dr. Dangolla, and teach English in the evenings to local villagers living in human/elephant conflict areas. It turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.
Hanging out with elephants, teaching English, spending time with new friends and eating hot curry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are some of the things I remember the most. It was during this time that I met Thusitha Ranasinghe, poopy-paper-maker extraordinaire. With both of us sharing a love for animals and concern for the environment, we hit it off right away. Human/elephant conflict was our topic every single night. How can we preserve Sri Lanka’s wild elephant population? How can we appease a farmer who lost his crop in one evening to a hungry elephant? How do we prevent Sri Lanka from becoming like Thailand or Indonesia where their natural forests have already been cut down? Can poo paper be the answer? Can we make a difference to both the wild elephants and humans? And so, Mr. Ellie Pooh was born.
Screening pulp, as part of the paper-making process.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Karl: Our whole program is based on making as much natural paper as we can. The more paper we sell, the more jobs we create. These jobs are essential if our conservation program is going to work. When we started Mr. Ellie Pooh, our greatest challenges were keeping everyone in Sri Lanka employed.
As a whole, our company has been growing. To create more of a demand, we started using our paper for other things beside gift ideas: hang tags, business cards, invitations, letter press and off-set printing, and pocket folders. We feel that this is more sustainable than riding the highs and lows of the gift market.
Environmentally, our paper and our ideals have always been responsible. Using raw resources, and less water and energy than milled paper has always been our standard.
What's the most hopeful sign you've seen recently from the green economy?
Karl: I'm inspired whenever Mr. Ellie Pooh exhibits at the many Green Festivals and Expos around the country. You can sense the energy as well as count the money that comes from these shows. People are investing in the green economy. I would encourage all green entrepreneurs to get involved with Green Festival shows. They are full of people who are interested in saving the world by creating a sustainable economy.
What green product could you not live without?
Karl: Mr. Ellie Pooh is an animal lover as well as a greenie. Another animal lover and greenie is Pam Wheelock, who runs Purrfect Play, and makes organic pet toys from Fair Trade materials. She does it all herself. You should check her out.
Questions from readers:
Q: Please explain how the paper is made. Making paper from dung does not sound very appealing. What is the process from poop to paper? — Jenna C.
How is the elephant dung sanitized so it can be handled without transmitting disease? — Katherine R .
Karl: Basically, the pooh part of the dung is washed away and what we are using for the paper is leftover raw cellulose. This vegetation is then boiled in a big pressure pot to kill any bacteria. This sterilized product is then combined and mixed with 30% post-consumer paper. From this point, the paper is made like any other handmade paper. The pulp mixuture is screened, pressed and hung to dry.
Q: This is awesome! Where can I find your paper products? — Carolyn C .
Karl: You can check online to see if there is a retailer near you. We always prefer that you buy local. http://www.mrelliepooh.com/locations.html
Q: I am an artist and would like to know where I can buy large pieces of Ellie Pooh paper. I recently bought some in small note pads, and I love them. Where can I buy larger pieces? — Robyn D.
Karl: Anywhere you can buy our gift items, these stores have the ability to buy our parent sheets of pooh paper, both text weight and card stock. If for some reason, you can't find a local store selling the pooh, get in touch with us directly. Catch the phone number on our Web page.
Q: Dear Mr. Pooh, Kudos to your socio-environmental achievements! While I commend you on your well-intended conservation efforts, I was wondering if you had considered the ecological impact of removing large quantities of elephant dung from its environment should your business continue to grow and spread to other countries in Southeast Asia. You will be opening a closed nutrient cycle. Have you done research on the effect of removing elephant dung on soil fertility in Sri Lanka? — Olivia Y.
Karl: Cheers to you Olivia! Great question. You are correct. Removing all the natural fertilizer from the wild would be a bad thing. Fortunately, most of our pooh comes from two main elephant orphanages in Sri Lanka. However, it is important to note that the paper-making and local artisan jobs are either working with us in our main facility located in Kegalle, Sri Lanka or in one of our satalite locations in the rural human/elephant conflict areas.