The Second great toilet paper shortage

As baby boomers we’re entitled to say, “I thought we’d seen it all,” because as just about the oldest people out there any more, maybe we have. But no, not even close. As BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs writes, last year brought one particular phenomenon that we never would have foreseen. Never could have foreseen. But might have to see yet again.

Do you remember The Great Toilet Paper Shortage way back in the year 2020? What’s worse, are you ready for another one? Sorry to throw cold water on your day, but some analysts say, it could be coming.

Of course you do remember last year’s. Who could forget it?! Like poor ol’ Mother Hubbard, the cupboards were bare. Not just at home but at the supermarket too. About a month into the initial lockdown, roughly half of all American supermarkets were out of stock. Sometimes it was impossible to find the stuff even at behemoth big box stores like Costco, which eventually restocked its empty pallets but limited any shopper’s purchase to one pack, no more. As a soul-stirring gift to my children and their families, one day I finally scored some TP online… only to get an email the next day from the vendor saying “Sorry, the product you ordered is not available.”

It was a sinister start to supply-chain shortages.

It’s not like we were talking about recreational rarities like bike parts or golf carts, which were hard to find but hardly a hardship. Or even slightly more necessary but still less than life-or-death-dependent products like computer electronics and cars; we could live a little longer with the medieval machines we already had. No, this was toilet paper. In the most industrially advanced nation on earth— even though virtually every roll we use is manufactured in the U.S.A.— we couldn’t find any.

Greg Dobbs

It made me feel like I lived in a Third World nation. It reminded me of a guide I once had in Peru who told me that his country would never rise above its Third World status until the day came when people wouldn’t have to bring their own toilet paper to a public restroom. Now, we were Peru.

And we might be going there again.

The explanations back then for The Great Toilet Paper Shortage didn’t wash.

The first I heard was that shelves were bare because with some three-quarters of the population locked down at home, people weren’t using the restrooms any more at their workplaces, their schools, their restaurants, or anywhere else— which were still flush with toilet paper— and instead were flushing more at home, which depleted the stocks that much faster. According to Georgia-Pacific, which makes two of our top brands, the American people at the height of the lockdown used upwards of 40% more TP at home than normal, which is pretty impressive when you learn that even without a lockdown, the average American household goes through more than 400 rolls a year. You don’t have to strain your brain to figure out that that’s more than a roll a day.

Making toilet paper is not rocket science.

But that explanation for the shortfall— because people were using more TP at home and not at their suddenly vacant schools and restaurants and workplaces— broke down when I learned that those workplaces weren’t ordering it any more because no one was using their toilets. That should have meant there was more available at the supermarkets and big box stores for us. Yet there wasn’t. Which led to explanation #2: public restrooms and private bathrooms use different kinds of toilet paper, and between different providers and different preferences, we couldn’t easily shift the public kind to private.

By and large, the rolls of TP in public restrooms are bulkier— which don’t fit on our home dispensers— and because they’re made from a different fiber, their paper is thinner and rougher, rather than thicker and softer, which is our habit at home. If we could have added an 11th Commandment when Moses got the tablets at Mount Sinai, it might have read, “Don’t Squeeze the Charmin.”

So the second explanation about public and private made some sense but it was a third one— more about human nature than supply and demand— that might be the most worrisome: when the pandemic got serious, many experts opined, people panic-bought all the toilet paper they could get their hands on, then hoarded it. Which doesn’t bode well in light of some analysts’ newest predictions: that toilet paper once again is going to play hard-to-get.

Wood pulp for making toilet paper.

The explanation this time is pulp. The packaged product might be made in the U.S.A., but the raw material is wood pulp that comes from other continents, mainly South America. What this means is, the supply-chain issues that have slowed or stopped the movement of everything from furniture to toys to washing machines to coffee beans might soon be the culprit that causes The Second Great Toilet Paper Shortage.

And here’s where it gets more complicated.

When ships come from abroad, they have to wait offshore as much as a month at some pandemic-impacted ports to pull up to a dock but even then, there is a shortage of workers to unload them. Making matters worse, once the goods do get transferred to the dock, there aren’t enough trucks to take them away because trucks that criss-cross the country take a beating and… well… the parts to repair them are tied up at the clogged ports. Then, when the already long-delayed goods finally do get transported out of the ports… guess what… there aren’t enough drivers to deliver them to a final destination. Which has led to warehouses full to overflowing. The trade group American Trucking Associations estimates that the U.S. is short of drivers to the tune of some 80,000.

Catch 22, anyone?

On top of all that, of course, some factories at home and abroad still aren’t producing at full capacity because of the pandemic. Especially abroad.

Making toilet paper.

So we’re likely for a while to see the same supply-chain scarcities we’ve been seeing— from stainless steel to semiconductor chips— which lead to shortages of everything from cell phones to computer games to appliances to automobiles. A single car uses between 50 and 150 chips (and up to 3,000 in some electric cars). A single critical chip in short supply can slow down production on an entire model.

As they say, the hip bone’s connected to the shin bone. And somehow, toilet paper’s connected to it all.

The United States mobilized for World War Two. We turned consumer-centric factories into production lines for everything from airplanes to ammunition, and with the help of Rosie the Riveter and millions like her, we won the war. We mobilized again, under both presidents Trump and Biden, to beat the pandemic. The outcome isn’t guaranteed but from Ford manufacturing ventilators to Bacardi producing hand sanitizers to GM making masks to Big Pharma inventing vaccines at lightning speed, there were partnerships between industry and government and America came through.

Will they do it again… if we need it again… for toilet paper? If not, The Great Toilet Paper Shortage might be coming once again to a store near you.

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