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Toilet paper is disappearing from shelves — again

Suppliers like Charmin say that customers are still buying toilet paper at record levels.

Rolls of toilet paper on a pink background
A major toilet paper supplier said “the timing is uncertain” as to when store shelves will be fully restocked.
Getty Images/Science Photo Libra

The coronavirus pandemic has once again upended the toilet paper market. In the spring, empty or sparsely stocked grocery store shelves became the new normal, and shoppers were left wondering: Where did all the toilet paper go? And when will it be widely available again?

As states opened back up for the summer and the spike in demand from anxious customers leveled off, items such as wet wipes and toilet paper were back on shelves again. That is, until the burgeoning surge of infections nationwide began in late October, leading millions of Americans to return to bulk-buying lockdown mode.

Customers are still buying toilet paper at record levels, according to a Charmin representative. TP has developed a reputation as a must-have pandemic product; not only is it a basic necessity, it’s relatively cheap to buy in bulk and will certainly be used at a later date. Americans, who make up about 4 percent of the global population, also use more toilet paper than citizens of other countries, accounting for 20 percent of global TP consumption.

For the average customer, it’s much easier to assume that the lack of 4-packs at stores lies with some neighborhood panic-buyer who got their hands on multiple TP rolls before everyone else. Yet, the shortage in some areas isn’t entirely the result of hoarding.

There are major problems in the supply chain. Demand is way up, and suppliers have experienced serious disruptions. This isn’t just true for toilet paper. As Hilary George-Parkin previously reported for The Goods, “the coronavirus outbreak has created an unlucky confluence of spiking demand and widespread supplier delays” since the crisis isn’t contained in a single state or country. To put it simply, many American companies are heavily reliant on overseas suppliers, primarily from China, for raw materials or finished products. Any delay overseas can create a domino effect in terms of product availability.

Plus, TP is historically easy to produce “because demand is so boringly consistent,” Forbes reported in May. “And because of its bulk, no one wants extra rolls taking up valuable space. Those factors have made toilet paper the quintessential candidate for just-in-time manufacturing.”

Toilet paper is produced from one of two sources: virgin pulp from trees, or recycled pulp from materials like discarded paper or cardboard that’s reprocessed into pulp. Virgin pulp — a key material for TP brands like Charmin Ultra Soft and Angel Soft — is sourced from forests in the United States, Brazil, and Canada, and accounts for 23 percent of Canada’s forest product exports.

Current trade tensions between the US and Canada might make it more difficult for suppliers to get the ingredients they need. In August, President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on a broad list of American aluminum products, which prompted Canada to respond with their own set of retaliatory tariffs.

Since the spring, toilet paper suppliers like Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific have significantly ramped up the speed at which business is done. But the increase in production is quite limited: According to Forbes, output has only grown by about 8 percent, which is actually a record-high level of production. But overall, the pandemic has “revealed the limits of lean supply-chain management,” the outlet reported.

A Kimberly-Clark representative told Vox in April that the supplier has “plans in place to address the increased demand for our products to the extent possible, including accelerating production and reallocating inventory to help meet these needs.”

In a statement on its website, Georgia-Pacific, a major toilet paper supplier based in Atlanta, admitted that “the timing is uncertain” as to when store shelves will be fully restocked with TP. “We are working hard to maximize the number of deliveries we can load and ship out of our facilities; you can just load and unload so fast,” a spokesperson told The Goods, adding that the company’s mills and distribution centers have increased 20 percent from normal capacity. “We are also working with customers to have direct shipments when possible to reduce distribution time.”

A recycled Angel Soft box sits on an empty shelf in the toilet paper aisle of a retail store.
An empty toilet paper aisle in Bloomington, Indiana. Across the country, stores have placed limits on how much toilet paper a customer can buy.
Jeremy Hogan/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

As a result of increased demand and disruptions, stores are struggling to keep both basics and coronavirus-associated products in stock. The problem is just as bad online: Amazon, along with Walmart’s and Target’s sites, has been overwhelmed with an influx of orders. There are also instances of toilet paper selling out online but still being available in stores, which poses a problem for older or immunocompromised consumers who aren’t able to physically enter a store.

Grocers and big-box retailers alike have suffered from temporary stockouts of all sorts of items and are now figuring out how to manage inventory, even placing limits on how much of a specific item a customer can purchase. Limiting purchases, however, can only do so much.

Collectively, we probably still use the same amount of toilet paper as we did before the pandemic, but suddenly, we’re expected to use more of our own supply. Most people are no longer eating out at restaurants or going to work or school — places where we conveniently use the restroom and the available toilet paper. Georgia-Pacific estimates that the average American household will use about 40 percent more toilet paper than usual if people spend all their time at home.

As Will Oremus reported for Medium, the toilet paper industry is divided into two markets: consumer (the likes of Quilted Northern, Charmin, or Cottonelle that you use at home) and commercial (bulky rolls of thin, scratchy paper you find in public restrooms). Most toilet paper manufacturers aren’t sure when consumer toilet paper supplies will be “back to normal” because, well, the situation isn’t normal. Businesses, workplaces, schools, and other public spaces that used to order commercial toilet paper have no need for it, while consumer demand has significantly increased.

Suppliers have to shift gears as demand for consumer toilet paper outweighs that of the commercial sector, but it’s not a simple task. The products are entirely different, down to size and packaging. “Shifting to retail channels would require new relationships and contracts between suppliers, distributors, and stores; different formats for packaging and shipping; new trucking routes — all for a bulky product with lean profit margins,” Oremus reported.

Since there’s no certain timeline as to when these stay-at-home orders will be lifted, manufacturers don’t have much flexibility to adjust their production capabilities. Plus, most toilet paper mills were already operating 24 hours a day and seven days a week before the coronavirus, CNN reported. It’s likely that regular toilet paper will stay in short supply, at least through the winter, until stay-at-home orders are relaxed or suppliers radically alter their production process to meet demand.

If you are desperate for toilet paper, there is the option to order commercial-grade TP in bulk online, or you can support local restaurants that have pivoted to selling pantry and kitchen staples, including toilet paper and paper towels. We still have plenty of toilet paper to go around — it just might not be as soft as you’re used to. Or maybe it’s just time for American society to move on from TP onto the bidet.

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