The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020

All credit to this post goes to Will Oremus and his story ‘What everyone’s getting wrong about the toilet paper shortage’.

Am I really going to talk about toilet paper? YES. Yes, I am. As mentioned on this blog last week, Economics is a passion of mine. And this, having a lot to do with economics, is something I find interesting.


If you’ve been living on planet earth at all during the past month, you’ll likely have noticed a distinct lack of toilet paper… everywhere. First it was being written off as panic buying. Photos circulated the web of people purchasing hundreds of rolls of toilet paper at a time, and bragging about it to their social media profiles. Others got caught in viral videos fighting over it in grocery store aisles. If you weren’t quick to run to the store, you might not have even found it at all.

Leaders and celebrities, people of influence and grocery store owners encouraged everyone to calm down, stop panic buying and start thinking rationally. Store after store after store promised there was no issue with the supply chain and there wasn’t a shortage, ‘we just weren’t prepared for the entire country to go out and panic buy hundreds of rolls at a time’.

This didn’t just happen here in Canada, it seemed to be happening across the world. For weeks jokes have been flying that ‘corona virus doesn’t give you diarrhea’ and though the large-scale panic buying mania has largely subsided, the toilet paper aisle is still bare.

Why?

The other aisles have been restocked. And, in a lot of cases other aisles have been restocked two or three times over at this point. But somehow, even with limits of how much someone can purchase, the toilet paper aisle is still empty.

The fact of the matter is, panic buying aside, COVID-19 has created an increase in demand for toilet paper. It is… somewhat of an essential in most homes in 2020 around the world. Could we live without it? Probably. Do we want to live without it? No.

Think back to a pre-COVID world. Times were calm. Large chunks of the population were in school or at work for 6-12 hours (or more) a day. And even after they returned home, they might opt to go out for dinner. Take their kids to hockey practice, or have some sort of an event that would keep them out of their home for even longer during the day.

The ‘residential’ toilet paper supply chain is built to work 24 hours a day, 7 days per week to produce precisely what was needed pre-COVID. The residential toilet paper supply chain is not built to function for the high demand of most of the world staying home 24 hours a day, 7 days of the week.

People aren’t going to the bathroom more now than pre-COVID. What has changed is that people are going to the bathroom more at home.

In his piece, Oremus explains that there are two distinct supply chains for toilet paper. Manufacturing plants that make the toilet paper that winds up in our grocery stores are not the same manufacturing plants that create the toilet paper that winds up in schools, in office washrooms, in the mall washrooms, and so on and so forth. For instance, Charmin is making toilet paper for the home but they are not in the business of making the large scale, industrial style single-ply toilet paper you find in public washrooms. They’re different products, made from different materials in different assembly lines in different manufacturing plants.

So, as we around the world are seeing empty shelves, still, when we wander the toilet paper aisle in our local grocery stores, there’s a large subsection of the economy that could very well have a surplus of toilet paper sitting around in storage closets and warehouses. This is because the ‘commercial’ toilet paper supply chain doesn’t need to supply commercial businesses and public facilities with toilet paper when these businesses and facilities aren’t open and people are staying home.

As of today, April 7th 2020, the residential supply chain for toilet paper is not meeting demand the commercial supply chain for toilet paper doesn’t seem to have a demand.

What’s the answer?

There isn’t really one.

Toilet paper is a relatively value-less product from a manufacturing standpoint. From the manufacturing perspective you make it, you ship it to the grocery store and then you make more. You don’t make heaps of it at a time to create massive stockpiles for times of higher demand because firstly, it is not going to bring any extra value to your company, and secondly it has a shelf life.

I know that’s a weird concept to think about, toilet paper having a shelf life, but overtime toilet paper does break down.

Essentially, if you’re Charmin or Royale or any of the big players… or even the small players, it’s not going to serve the company well to create more than what demand requires.

Are Charmin or Royale or any of the players in the toilet paper manufacturing industry going to up their game or double production for the foreseeable future? Maybe. Some might try. But there is a possibility that they don’t bother. COVID-19 doesn’t come with a ‘this is how long you have’ notification. From a business perspective, there are countries already ready and trying to open back up their schools, economies and lives. It’s a very real possibility that a lot of these companies continue producing for the demand they’ve always been producing for, forcing society to adjust.

If any company does try to adjust to meet this new demand in grocery stores then in two, three or four months time they could be out a considerable loss when the world rebounds and starts going back to work and school and hockey practice. They’ll have a hyper productive assembly line to create for demands that are no longer there. Which is taking a massive gamble on a relatively worthless product in a very unstable world.

Are the commercial manufacturers going to switch their production to create the stuff sold in grocery stores? No. Bottom line, they don’t have the infrastructure, the machinery, or the supply chain opportunities to do so. They also don’t have the relationships with grocery stores to sell their products and put their products on shelves.

Could you get your hands on some of the commercial product for your home? Possibly. If you’re savvy or have business connections. If you’re a regular joe like the most of us, it might be difficult. You might have better luck just phoning the store before you go to ask when their toilet paper is being restocked.

Bottom line, Oremus summed up pretty nicely nearing the end of his piece:

If there’s any good news, it’s that we can stop blaming these shortages on the alleged idiocy of our fellow consumers. 

Will Oremus, Marker

This shortage of toilet paper could go on for months. While panic buying might have started the shortage, increase in demand is what has kept this shortage going.

You will see shelves restocked and new product making it through the supply chain during that time. But, there is a very real possibility the shelves will be restocked only to be emptied again and again and again. The increase in demand will be difficult to meet in the current COVID world.

What a year it’s been so far. Had you told me three months ago that toilet paper would simultaneously be one of the most worthless and most valuable products available on the market, I’d have probably laughed in your face.

I just know this shortage is going to wind up in a textbook eventually. Economic professors everywhere are already planning it.


If anyone has read this, I strongly recommend reading What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage by Will Oremus. Not only does he explain it a lot more professionally than I do, he mentions some other supply chains that will likely see disruptions over the next few months.

52 thoughts on “The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020

  1. The second to the last paragraph of the main article is what I value the most in the post. You said if someone had told you some time ago that… somewhere in the post, you called our world unstable. It has always been that way, it’s just at the fore recently. I think that good things also happen that way as well. Complaining of a “drought,” you know what I mean, can change into shouts of joy due to abundance of rain in unprecedented time. Many of us have been licking wounds for long, thinking when it will end. The promise in this unstable world is that it may.
    On toilet paper shortages, I have not really felt it. Maybe it’s because we’re recently just getting into the quarantine or because nobody is panic-buying but it seems calm here.
    I hope you are staying safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well count your blessings then that you’ve managed to escape the mass panic buying hysteria. And you’re right, it’s an unstable world… it just seems more unstable than ever right now. Just trying to hold myself stable and keep my brain occupied!
      Stay healthy. Hopefully there aren’t huge outbreaks there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very informative V, my sister and i were stumped over this one! When we were in week 1 of this, we couldn’t figure out how or why we couldn’t see to find ANY. The one morning we went to a local pharmacy before it opened, stood on a line of about 20 people, were ushered in little cattle to be strictly instructed that we were only allowed to purchase 2 packages of t.p. It seemed surreal! I’m with you my friend, if someone had told me in January what we would be doing ing in March I would’ve said nahhhhhh😉

    Liked by 1 person

      1. 100% my friend, 100% I just keep wat thing what people are gravitating too. The fear and what not. I call it getting lost in the weeds. Sticking to what’s important, priorities. For me tp wasn’t one of them LOLEverythi changing and we must keep focused and allow for everything to flow through. This is the Great Awakening, either change and grow or you’re not going to make it

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally know how you feel… There are limits here… which is crazy because the aisles are always empty anyway. It’s kind of like… you need to know what day it’s being delivered on, because if you don’t get there that day, you won’t get any!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I never thought about the demand for home TP replacing demand for industrial TP. It makes sense in a way. I assumed everyone was stocking up and there’d be an oversupply of it when things get back to normal.

    Despite that, do people really use the bathroom that much at work? I don’t, but I also only work part time. Learning something new everyday sure is fun!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t think it’s necessarily that they use the bathroom more at work, I think it’s just reflective of the fact that we’ve essentially doubled, and in some cases tripled, the amount of time EVERYONE is spending at home.

      If you imagine an average household that has four members – two adults and two kids – the adults go to work each day and the kids go to school. Between drop offs and pick ups that’s easily eight hours in which four people aren’t home, five days a week for 52 weeks a year. Say those kids go to piano lessons after work that takes another two hours – well they can’t do that now. So that’s an extra 10 hours a day all four of these people are at home when they wouldn’t normally be. So people need to… make up for that fact, I guess.

      Whereas with regular activities and school and work they might us a roll every couple of days, now with four people at home 24 hours a day, they might go through a roll a day.

      I’m talking way too much about toilet paper. I should probably stop.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Wow, I never knew this about toilet paper! Always love your posts, as a fellow millennial I aspire to write at this level.

    Here in New Zealand, we had a shortage of toilet paper for about 1-2 weeks. Now this has been replaced by the shortage of… flour. Everybody here is making bread! Won’t be surprised if everybody knows the basics of bread-making by the time the quarantine lifts.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s become a really trendy thing around here. I think people are thinking it’s an easy carbohydrate to make from home? And you can freeze it. And you can make it 100 different ways, so you don’t have to go to the store as often? Heck, I don’t know. All I know is that my mom’s been making bread since I was like… five years old. And we haven’t had flour, or sugar, milk, butter…. on shelves in like two and a half weeks.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh my comment came across slightly wrong. I really meant are they actually using the flour to make bread, or just buying it with good intentions. And then ‘why’ not because it doesn’t sound like a good idea, but why bread in particular (as opposed to eating e.g. rice, potatoes). But yeah, comes down to preference ultimately! Bread is a good thing for me to try cooking, in the middle of the night when there’s no housemates around!

        I bought flour but made pancakes 😁, oh shit and banana bread lol.

        Like

      3. They are, and we’re no different haha! Just yesterday we made sourdough. I think it’s become popular because you can make bread in many different ways despite using the same ingredients. It’s a great way to keep creative and productive, while reaping (edible) benefits!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. OHHHHH yes, the breadmaking thing is here too. My mom’s been baking bread since long before corona virus though, so her making it now isn’t anything new. Not being able to find flour, or sugar, or milk or butter to make it has been interesting…

      I’ve heard some people say that the ‘LockDown’ in New Zealand is really, really strict. I hope you are holding out well and that you’re staying sane and healthy.

      Like

      1. The lockdown isn’t that bad here, we can still go out and exercise or take a walk if we like 😄 It’s strict in a sense that travel is severely limited, and if you’re not a citizen you cannot get into the country, even if you’re employed here. I had plans to go to Australia this month, and had I pushed through, I wouldn’t have been able to come back here as I’m a Philippine citizen…eep!

        Because of the restrictions, though, NZ is pretty much squashing the curve. We’ve had only about 60 cases today; it’s the third(?) consecutive day of the numbers being lower than anticipated, so we’re making huge progress!

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      2. Okay, the way that you describe actually sounds a little less severe than what people have been explaining. That being said, it seems like NZ has done pretty well with containment. I’ve been checking the World Health Organization numbers daily and NZ remains pretty low.

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  5. That makes sense, I think there was definitely a significant mania factor too though, which seems to have varied significantly between countries. I think it can even be localised to shops, as I’ve both seen and heard of how some shops run out and others always have it in stock. In any case, stock levels are back to normal here in all shops that I’ve been to recently! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stock levels are still pretty bare here. But that might have to do with the fact that we’re kind of isolated and farther north. Nevertheless, there still seems to be vast parts of Canada and America where the shelves are empty as well. The cities seem to be on the ball with restocking.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Easily my favorite article of yours. I didn’t think about the supply chains at all when mocking the toilet paper panic. While there are trees for days in Canada. Its becoming widley accepted that the 2020 treeplant season will not continue; thus affecting the sustainability of industry. One year won’t hurt the supply chain, but several years, or repeating processes of shut down would surely affect the long term availability of the product.
    Its funny it has a shelf life. Those that over stocked are going to be so screwed!

    Like

    1. Toilet paper comes wrapped in plastic at the store (and not paper) because the materials used to make toilet paper degrade when exposed to the natural elements – air, moisture, heat, etc… The plastic is to quite literally keep the air out of it so that it lasts longer in case it does not get sold right away.

      As for the tree planting, I know what you mean. This province literally relies on the forestry industry and the replanting of said trees. Not to mention, what is BC going to do if there aren’t a bunch of hippies flocking to this province this summer? When Starbucks eventually does open again, I want to be able to go in there and see 20 tree-planters taking up all of the tables with water to take advantage of free wifi. lol

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  7. I don’t know the economics of it Vee but on the lighter side : India has given a lot to the West by way of its ancient culture, yoga and meditation etc. How I wish the Western world had also learned from the Indian Sub Continent : How to manage without toilet paper 😂

    Like

  8. Here’s the thing – when I was a kid, if we ran out of toilet paper we would just use old newspaper. Granted, that’s reliant upon having anybody reading a newspaper any more (which few do), but it does seem a bit riduclous that people are so unwilling to substitute anything from their cosy life, and regard it as some sort of disaster if they can’t have things exactly as they normally might…

    Like

  9. The big why of today’s crisis😅. I’ve also written a post filled with a bunch of memes that explain the situation…. Seriously, we can’t get enough laughs from this situation, wouldn’t you agree?

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    1. I find it partially funny but also a little worrisome. Our shelves here are so sparse. Consistently thinking we’re going to run out of toilet paper gets stressful.

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  10. I have a feeling that once the quarantine is over and people realize how crazy they were for buying so much TP, they’ll lash out by covering government buildings in TP. At least here in the states because of the current idiotic government. Honestly this country could use a DC TP party.

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  11. As a household paper manufacturer, I can not understand why they bought so much toilet paper. Face mask, food and water is more important.

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  12. I love your site. My thanks for sharing such a good post. I was looking for thoughts on this topic last Thursday. I will come back to read more and inform my coworkers about your site. Do you know “Mexican Food Crevel Europe” is most selling food in COVID-19. If you don’t, then search for it.

    Like

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