Colbert Decrys World War 3-Ply! America Flushing Last Old Growth Forests Down the Toilet

A major threat to forests made Comedy Central’s Colbert Report Threatdowns list earlier this week: 3-ply toilet paper. Wiping our bums just should not be contributing to the destruction of some of the last untouched forests in North America, according to several environmental groups and to the comic relief of Steven Colbert.

Potty Humor Permeates News Coverage of Forest Destruction

Ed note Nov. 1, 2009: Hulu video no longer available but you can still watch on Comedy Central.

Colbert is not the only member of the media (?) who couldn’t resist the joke: The Washington Post headline that may have inspired the sketch read “Environmentalists Seek to Wipe Out Plush Toilet Paper.” “Soft Toilet Paper’s Hard on the Earth, But Will We Sit for the Alternative?,” the sub-title continues.

Softness Sells; Price Paid in Trees
Consumer Reports, on the other hand, takes toilet paper very seriously, ranking brands on softness and strength, among other characteristics. “In one test, trained panelists feel and scrunch a strip of six sheets from each roll,” says a Theresa Panetta in a Consumer Reports video. And softness is a major factor that that bumps three-ply Quilted Northern Ultra Plush ahead of recycled brands such as Seventh Generation and Marcel in the CR ranking. That super fluffy brand sold 24 million packages in the past year, bringing in more than $144 million, according to Information Resources, Inc (IRI).

Several of the softest, thickest toilet papers on the market – Cottonelle Ultra, Quilted Northern Ultra and Charmin Ultra — increased sales by 40 percent in some markets in 2008, according to IRI. According to Greenpeace, some major toilet paper brands use no recycled content. Unfortunately for the trees, recycled paper fiber is shorter than virgin fiber and makes for a rougher bath tissue.

Marcel Manufacturing is trying to get past that particular prejudice in the marketplace, pointing to strength as the real measure of TP quality. “If the paper breaks during your use of toilet paper, obviously, that’s very, very important,” Tim Spring, Marcel chief executive told the Washington Post in a detail-free, yet surprisingly graphic description of the situation.

Squeezablely Soft Doesn’t Move Every Bath Tissue Market
This is one issue that’s definitely not about necessity. Cultural preferences and ad campaigns make a huge difference. We’ve been conditioned by commercials featuring bears and clouds and grocers imploring us to squeeze (or not). Toilet paper commercials are so integrated into our popular imagination that the New York Times mentioned Mr. Whipple, a grocery store manager from Charmin commercials, by name, without feeling the need to identify him, in the headline of its story on toilet tissue and deforestation earlier this year.

Recycled toilet paper is actually quite common in restaurants and office buildings and other away-from-home restrooms in the United States. But at home, softness rules. Not so in Europe or Latin America where recycled bathroom tissue is purchased for the home at ten times the rate of the United States (20 percent vs. 2 percent).

Convincing Charmin to Switch to Recycled
Greenpeace has been campaigning to end the flushing of ancient trees by convincing manufacturers to switch to recycled or sustainable paper pulp for more than four years. Earlier this year, Greenpeace published its own toilet paper guide ranking companies on sustainability over softness (available in pdf and for the iPhone. According to their analysis, “Americans could save more than 400,000 trees if each family bought a roll of recycled toilet paper—just once.” (read also Care2 blogger Angel Flinn’s piece on the Greenpeace toilet tissue guide.)

The group recently came to an agreement with Kimberly-Clark. While the they have taken some flack for cutting a deal over Kleenex, Greenpeace feels that Kimberly-Clark is such a big purchaser of wood that the agreement could shift the entire industry.

Greenpeace is now working on Georgia Pacific and Proctor & Gamble. Tell P&G to follow KC’s lead here.

Could Your Personal Hygiene Be Even Greener than Recycled?
The Greenpeace TP pocket shopping guide can help consumers choose more forest-friendly bath tissues but some green living enthusiasts may want go to even further.

One possible reason the European preference isn’t for the super soft stuff could be wide-spread bidet use for personal hygiene. While not standard issue in the American bathroom, bidets aren’t hard to buy or install. There are also bidet-inspired products that fit onto a standard American toilet.

Another option is reusable wipes. Families already washing cloth diapers for a baby might not find this such a wild idea.

But even if you do go for a tree-free option personally, make sure you tell Proctor & Gamble to make Mr. Whipple’s toilet paper recycled.

Photo of toilet paper roll by Flickr user gorillasushi / CC BY-SA 2.0


W. C
W. C5 months ago


William C
William C5 months ago

Thank you.

Gale Johansen
Gale Johansen8 years ago Kermit always says, "It isn't easy being green!" After reading this I looked at the Greenpeace list of paper products and will switch from the Scott TP and PT and the Kleenex tissues we have always used for simplicity and economy to the equivalent products from Trader Joe's where I occasionally shop anyway. We try not to use extraneous paper products by using cloth napkins and only a very limited amount of paper towels already. Although somewhat more expensive there is nothing else to do, we must take every small step we can to protect our environment.

Maria Teresa Suplico

It breaks my heart everytime I see an old tree cut down. I cringe because I get to thinking how long it took for the tree to grow only to be cut down to make something that will end up in the toilet. Recycled paper is really the best. Bamboo is a good alternative and when planted they grow fast. With the recent devastating floods here in the Philippines, we know first hand that there is a heavy price to pay for denudation of forests, failure to preserve the environment.

Kip Mapes
Kip Mapes8 years ago

Bush appointed mark Allen a lumber lobbiest to head up the National Parks.They togeather reversed Clintons roadless act for the Tongas forest of old growth trees. Paid for the road construction and had the old growth striped and clear cut.

I believe it is Romans 20;11

"I will destroy those that destroy my creation" God

There has alwas been a fight in this country with those that say 'They' have a God given right to go and take what they say we need. For the benifit of all (and their wallet)...

And those that say, hey wait a min, why don't we just study his creation. Apperciate it as the gift it is see if we can get by on a little less.k

"We do Not inherit this world from our ancestors, we barrow it from our childern."

And to you young people right now, I am sorry!

Lets all do what we can, and get closer to our maker.

Fred Smilek
Fred Smilek8 years ago

Love me some Colbert Report! But it is pretty sad that toilet paper is taking a toll on our "endangered forests"

Helen D.
Helen D8 years ago

I only ever buy recycled paper.

Reanna C.
SamtoeJam C8 years ago

Steven Colbert brought the issue to light (in my opinion) in the comical way he does many things - watch it again. To suggest that he promotes anything but a liberal agenda is stupid. He (along with Stewart) does more to expose/satirize people like Beck and Hannity, than anyone I can think of. Let's give him our support instead of being whiney, hyper-sensitive babies.

johnnie W.
johnnie W8 years ago

We do not use paper towels or paper napkins, in my home. I go to graage sales, and second hand stores, I buy cloth napkins, most of the time 6 for a dollar, or if they are real ugly 50 cents. We use them for napkins, dishtowels, hot pads, its amazing what they will do. When to old to use or wash anymore. I pass them on to the animal shelter to use with the dogs and cats. It is a win win thing all around. I always buy dishtowels when I can fine them also. All old towels, cloth napkins, cloth wash rags, rugs, I take to the animals shelter, they use a lot of them. We do buy recycle toilet paper when we can but as only one store close to me carries it, and it is a little expensive, I have to plan ahead to make sure I get it.

Danyele Read
Dany R8 years ago

I always buy recycled but hold on, how is it that we are harvesting ancient forests? Have you seen how fast a redwood grows? It's the new ones they now harvest, not the older ancient ones. I thought that was true for all trees. We plant trees for harvesting, and leave old growth untouched. Duh.