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Long: The great toilet paper shortage of 2020

Long: The great toilet paper shortage of 2020

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By John Long

Since the start of social distancing, one thing has kept me slightly baffled: What’s with the toilet paper shortage?

For weeks store shelves, at least where I’ve visited, have been — ahem — wiped out of TP. Now, with that rather obvious pun out of the way, let me promise that I don’t intend this rambling discourse to devolve into potty humor. This actually has been a subject I’ve informally monitored for the past few weeks and have pondered the reasons behind it. Why specifically is toilet paper in such short supply?

I don’t suppose there’s any single answer, and I’ve heard several explanations from various people. The easiest is that no one wants to run out of TP, and no one knows exactly how long stay-at-home mandates will last. I can see that. I’d never thought about it before, but it occurred to me that there are few if any products as universal as toilet paper in the superabundance of an American grocery store. Vegetarians aren’t going to browse the meat department. Some people swear off of sodas. Others, probably less healthy, never buy vegetables. Plenty of people are lactose intolerant and shun the dairy aisle.

But I’ve never heard anyone say “Toilet paper? Never use the stuff!”

For my family’s part, we were pretty well stocked on bathroom tissue before the whole crisis began, but we were in danger of running out of paper towels. So on my few trips to the store, I’ve monitored that particular aisle, and haven’t seen a well-stocked shelf in weeks (though I did find a few rolls to get us through). Other items have been in short supply as well, I’ve noticed. Hand sanitizer, of course; bleach and other disinfectants; convenience foods like Ramen noodles; ground beef. But other things that it seemed to me should be hard to find haven’t been.

Diapers, for instance. Granted, not every household (including mine) has a child in diapers, but it just seemed to me that if people were hoarding toilet paper, a proportionate number should be stockpiling for Junior’s needs. Out of curiosity, I’ve checked the stock a few times when walking by. Maybe someone with a baby will correct me, but I have yet to notice the diaper aisle looking depleted.

So why is TP so hard to find? Why have so many people responded to a serious respiratory pandemic by filling closets with Charmin Ultrasoft? We’ve all seen hurricane alerts, blizzard warnings, and many of us remember the unfounded Y2K panic. Yet I don’t recall toilet paper shortages in any of those instances, though perhaps they happened and I was oblivious.

I don’t think it’s been some corporate conspiracy. While I’m sure TP manufacturers are delighted with the sales, they must realize that so many people with a six-month supply means there will be a slump in demand in coming months.

My wife theorizes (quite logically) that with social distancing kids are out of school, no one is eating out and many people are working from home. It stands to reason families need a bigger supply since they aren’t using someone else’s for much of the day.

But it seems to me more than that. The initial panic, when people were stealing rolls from public restrooms, didn’t seem to follow any logical premise. It seemed to be exactly that — panic. And self-fulfilling prophecy. Somehow word got around that there was a run on TP. So everyone rushed to buy it. Presto — toilet paper went from scarce to gone.

In the end, I don’t have an answer to my question. But maybe it says something about us in these days of uncertainty. We don’t know who might be infected. We don’t know who will be out of work. We don’t know when restaurants will reopen. And we have no control over any of it.

But maybe we find some comfort in being able to control at least something. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring, but at the very least, we surmise, today there will be paper on the roller, going over or under according to your preference.

Maybe things will get worse. Maybe you end up desperate enough to start tearing this newspaper into squares— though if you read online, consider that option carefully. But stop and ponder this. In the midst of a global pandemic and growing economic catastrophe, it may be that you are still so blessed that rationing toilet paper is among your biggest worries. If so, count yourself extraordinarily fortunate.

Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.

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