The Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020

I know everyone is preoccupied (and rightly so) with the current COVID-19 pandemic, but I have had another global crisis on my mind these last few weeks–the apparent worldwide toilet paper shortage.  The toilet paper situation has intrigued me because, here in Ecuador, we have plenty of toilet paper. The shelves are completely stocked, and there is no evidence of the hoarding that has been reported in countries such as the USA, UK, Australia, and Western Europe in general.  So as I’ve talked to friends and family “back home” and heard their woes of having to scavenge for toilet paper, I was perplexed by why the so called “Developed World” was having such a shortage, while here in the Global South (e.g. “Developing World”), we are well stocked and wiping away!  

Colombia

After having this dichotomy nag at me for several weeks, I did a bit of googling this morning which resulted in a Eureka! moment. Here’s what I learned:  it’s all about the supply chain. The toilet paper industry is not homogenous–it is split into two distinct markets: commercial and consumer. The commercial market toilet paper is a completely different product than the consumer rolls that most Americans use in their households. 

Commercial toilet paper, typically sold in large rolls that are delivered on pallets, are usually made from lower quality, recycled paper. The way that it is produced and distributed is so different from consumer paper, that most toilet paper manufacturers only produce commercial OR consumer–not both.  

Consumer paper on the other hand, is usually made from virgin fiber, are thicker, softer, and come on conveniently small rolls, sold in packages of 8 or 12.  I’m talking about your typical Charmin or Quilted Northern that you would buy at your supermarket.  

So, why is the distinction between consumer and commercial so important in understanding the current shortage of toilet paper?  Well, currently, about 75% of the population in affected countries are staying at home under shelter in place or quarantine orders.  According to Georgia-Pacific, the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual in their homes while they are staying home from work/school.  Normally, people go to work or school or restaurants throughout most of the day and use commercial paper in those institutions. Now, however, everyone is at home boosting the demand of consumer paper.  And that, my friends, explains the shortage in the USA etc. There might be some hoarding going on as well, but a lot of the shortage goes back to supply and demand and the logistics of the industry.  

Now, the second part of my Eureka! moment brings us to the dichotomy of the shortages in more developed countries and the business-as-usual plethora here in Ecuador.  In Ecuador, as in most of the Global South, everyone has to bring their own toilet paper to use in most places outside of their home. Here, you don’t leave the house without a hearty wad of TP from your own consumer supply because restrooms in offices, restaurants, schools, parks, etc. do not supply free toilet paper.  We take it for granted in the States that if you walk into a public restroom or the bathroom in your office that it will be stocked with a roll of (usually) commercial toilet paper. Down here, that is a luxury we do not have. Therefore, the demand for consumer toilet paper has not drastically increased due to the entire population being in lockdown in their homes, because we always had to supply 24 hours/day’s worth of toilet paper for ourselves anyway–regardless of where we were doing our business.  Our supply and demand remains in equilibrium.  

This may seem insignificant to some people, but I find it fascinating how this global crisis is transforming our world and teaching us about the nuts and bolts of how our society and economy operates.  It is terrifying and devastating, but it is also so interesting to learn about things that we have taken for granted and never given thought to, e.g. toilet paper supply chains and demand disparities across cultures.  So much is changing in our world and it is happening so fast. Even the ripple effects feel like tsunamis; so I hope you are all hanging in there, that you are safe, healthy, and have plenty of toilet paper.  

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