Amid virus, humble toilet paper is suddenly a hot commodity

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Scott Mitchell fills a box with toilet paper at the Tissue Plus factory, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Bangor, Maine. The new company has been unexpectedly busy because of the shortage of toilet paper brought on by hoarders concerned about the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Tissue Plus is on a roll. The company launched production of toilet paper a couple of weeks ago, just as the reality of the coronavirus outbreak was starting to hit. Consumers began stocking up on the basic necessity in case they had to isolate or quarantine at home for weeks.

“You could argue this is impeccable timing,” President Marc Cooper says from the plant in Bangor, Maine. In reality, he says it’s stressful, because the company is inundated with frantic customers who want more toilet paper than the small factory can produce.

From Maine to Oregon, toilet paper producers are ramping up production and shipping operations to resupply stores wiped out by consumers buying toilet paper and paper towels in bulk. But the toilet paper is flying off the shelves as fast as stores can restock them.

Even shopping clubs like Costco and big-box retailers that have enormous stock, like Walmart and Target, were emptied of toilet paper and paper towels. Those stores still gett shipments, but shoppers pick shelves clean as soon as they’re restocked. In Maine, officials are investigating a convenience store accused of selling $10 rolls.

Toilet paper sales nationally jumped about 213% in the week ending March 14, compared to the same period a year before, according to market research firm Nielsen.

The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020 is not confined to the U.S. A video seen widely earlier this month from Australia showed three women brawling over toilet paper, underscoring the dire situation.

“People are scared. When people are fearful, they’re going to resort to hoarding. People don’t want to be left without,” shopper Jenilee Bryant says at a Walmart that is sold out of toilet paper. Thankfully, Bryant managed to secure a six-pack the day before at a drug store.

It’s not just panic driving demand. Individuals and families spending more time at home need more toilet paper there while working remotely or staying home from school.

Based on data from market researchers IRI and the U.S. Census, the industry estimates that would mean a 140% boost in toilet paper consumption at home, says Eric Abercrombie from Georgia-Pacific, which makes Quilted Northern and Angel Soft bathroom tissue.

Most toilet paper sold in the U.S. is made at North American paper mills, which makes it easier to resupply stores while foreign-made products suffer from delays and supply bottlenecks. Still, the fear of shortages is bad enough that some folks are talking about using everything from paper towels to tissues to magazines in an emergency. Officials are worried that sewers and septic systems could get clogged if people start getting inventive.

In California, some communities are blaming several sewage spills on clogs caused by wipes and paper towels that shouldn’t have been flushed.

And Americans are increasingly interested in bidets, popular in Europe and Asia, that squirt water for post-potty hygiene.

Consumers should be happy to know that the toilet paper manufacturers are unflinching in the face of heavy demand. “We’re working around the clock to make sure we can keep delivering products to the retailers as fast as possible,” says Charmin spokeswoman Loren Fanroy from Procter & Gamble’s Cincinnati headquarters

In Maine, Cooper’s company is not a fly-by-night operation that aims to cash in the situation. The plant had been in the works for a year, and the company bought the building in June, he says.

The company takes large rolls from mills and cuts them to size to be used as toilet paper, napkins, folded paper towels, and paper towel rolls, Cooper says.

“You hate to look at it as you’re capitalizing on the misfortune of our world circumstances. But I’m grateful that we can help in some way and that we can contribute and provide something that people need desperately,” he says.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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