No S%*t: 4 Products Made from Poop (and One is Coffee)

poop time

Poop. It’s everyone’s favorite subject to avoid, except for these four companies that actually turn it into amazing products.

Most people are familiar with the practice of recycling animal excrement into manure. But some not-so-squeamish souls have gone a step further, devising sustainable solutions to prevent the putrid piles from going to waste.

1. Civet coffee (kopi luwak): Can you imagine paying hundreds of dollars for coffee made from poop? Civet coffee is a rarefied brew made from the droppings of a nocturnal, catlike animal called the Asian palm civet. The lithe, long-tailed creature eats a diet of coffee berries, digesting the fruit’s fleshy pulp and passing the tough pit through its gastrointestinal tract whole (although enzymes break down the bean’s proteins). After the civet defecates the undigested coffee beans, they are then harvested, husked, washed, and roasted.

Opinions of the civet coffee’s flavor vary, described by some as “earthy” and “smooth” and others as “unremarkable” and “thin.” Many would agree, though, that the coffee isn’t bitter — which makes sense, since the civet’s digestive enzymes degrade the proteins that help give coffee its bitterness.

Harvesting the excreted coffee began in Indonesia, back when the archipelago was still a Dutch colony. Though a luxury today, Indonesian plantation workers had no choice but to resort to the civet castoffs, since Dutch owners prohibited them from picking the coffee beans for their own use.

If you decide to splurge on a bag, do some research first, and make sure that the coffee beans were collected from wild, not farmed, civets. Some civet farms confine the animals to cramped cages, where their job is to feed on and excrete coffee berries. Bantai Civet Coffee sells coffee that members of the Asipulo tribes in the northern Philippines gather only from wild civets. An added plus: the company buys the beans directly from tribe members, many of whom live in poverty, ensuring them a substantial source of income.

2. Poopoo Paper: Instead of cutting down trees, Poopoo Paper harvests fiber from the pounds of vegetation already eaten by elephants, horses, cows, pandas, and other hefty herbivores for its line of paper products. These animals’ digestive systems have trouble breaking down fiber, meaning that the hair-like bristles remain largely intact once defecated.

Collected mainly from elephant conservation parks in Thailand, the droppings are rinsed and boiled to disinfect the fiber and kill the stench. The resulting pulp is then mixed with additional fibers from cornhusks, pineapple plants, and other natural sources, which help hold the paper together. The pulp then gets spread out on mesh-bottomed trays and baked under the sun, drying into sheets of paper that are then crafted into stationery, journals, bookmarks, picture frames, greeting cards, Christmas ornaments, and paper flowers.

Company founder Michael Flancman came up with the idea for Poopoo Paper in 2002 when he heard about a Thai villager who made paper from elephant dung. He asked for samples and sold them to the Toronto Zoo. At the time, though, most North American retailers weren’t keen on the idea, but in 2005, eco-conscious retailers were more open to treeless alternatives. Flancman and his wife, who is from Thailand, relied on friends and friends of friends to set up manufacturing operations in the Southeast Asian country. Elephants are Poopoo Paper’s main suppliers, but the purveyor has expanded to include products from a variety of herbivores.

Besides offering an alternative paper source, Poopoo Paper donates some of its profits to support elephant conservation efforts.  The company also maintains a flex-work cottage-based manufacturing production framework in Thailand, which allows many of the crafts people to work at home, attend to seasonal harvesting commitments and fulfill family household responsibilities.

3. Coprolite may sound like a precious gemstone. In fact, the fancy name refers to fossilized animal feces. Over time, mineral deposits such as silicate and calcium phosphate replace much of the excrement’s original organic composition, resulting in an odorless, hardened nugget that’s indistinguishable from a rock or pebble, except to the trained eye of a paleontologist or paleoscatologist (a scientist who studies prehistoric poop).

The preserved heaps come from a variety of creatures, each of whose deposits have a characteristic shape. Sharks and lungfish, for example, produce spiral-shaped feces. Droppings from larger animals tend not to hold their shape, probably because they have a higher chance of splatting on the ground when they fall.

Coprolites from carnivores are more common, most likely due to the calcium carbonate in the bones and teeth of their prey, which help mineralize dung. On the other hand, herbivore droppings rely on outside sources of phosphate, such as marine sediments.  But for most species, the preservation process is short, geologically speaking, taking only a few hundred years. Mineralization can transform a dun-colored heap into a brilliant bauble. Dying to don some droppings? Maine-based Mostly Moose and More sells moose coprolite earrings, and Idaho’s Teton Valley Stones carries dinosaur (yes, dinosaur!) coprolite pendants. 

4. Loowatt This extreme eco-commode transforms human waste into precious energy. A tube of biodegradable polymer film acts as the toilet bowl. Rather than flushing with water, operating a handle on the toilet pulls the film through a sealing mechanism that separates the urine from the feces, storing them in a tightly sealed parcel that locks in odor. The user periodically deposits the waste into an anaerobic digester, which provides an oxygen-free environment where microorganisms consume the organic matter, releasing natural gas — used for cooking, electricity and other applications — as well as fertilizer.

Founder Virginia Gardener created the Loowatt as a low-cost sanitation solution for 40 percent of the world’s population, which lacks toilets. Installing sewage systems is impossible in many developing countries, resulting in improper waste disposal that can spread deadly waterborne illnesses. A pilot system for the LooWatt, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began in Madagascar last year. 

–Melissa Pandika

This post originally appeared in Sierra magazine.

Image: thejbird

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