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Explaining the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020

April 25th, 2020 by dk

I made fun when the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 was just beginning, before it earned its capital letters and its wikipedia entry. I’ve learned and thought more about the shortage and why it’s continuing, so here’s an update. There are three reasons we can’t stock TP fast enough to satisfy demand, even six weeks after the shortage began.

First is the hoarding. People shouldn’t derive satisfaction from denying others what they need, but some do. Nothing more can be said about it.

The second cause is interesting and related to the third. You may have heard about it, because toilet paper has become a sure-fire conversation starter. It turns out, it’s not an actual shortage, so much as a radical misallocation. There are piles of toilet paper piled up in warehouses, but it’s not designed for home use.

Toilet paper used in business locations is not the same as what we buy for our homes. The rolls are larger, the ply is thinner. The packaging has no UPC codes. The paper itself isn’t even the same. Business toilet paper is built from a rougher pulp, because no one ever quit their job because the office toilet paper is too scratchy.

Now that we’re working from home, the demand for the fluffy home TP has increased 40 percent, but the factories have been unable to match supply to demand. This inability reveals the third — and most troubling — cause of the G.T.P.S. of 2020.

Almost all our toilet paper comes from three manufacturers: Procter & Gamble, Kimberly Clark, and Georgia-Pacific. Toilet paper is a high-volume, low-margin product. TP literally takes up a lot of room. Manufacturers, truckers, distribution centers, and stores treat it like a logistics hot potato. Nobody wants to pay to store it. The distribution pipeline is exceptionally efficient.

Also, this. The three big producers were already running most of their automated plants 24 hours a day before the shortage hit. There was no extra production capacity to meet the spike in demand. Hiring more people wouldn’t help because people have almost nothing to do with making toilet paper. Machines do all the work, and machines are expensive. Adding more machines is a long-term expense to meet a short-term need. It cannot be undone when the surge passes. Automated production is efficient, but not nimble. 

Gone are the days when factories hired more people to work the graveyard shift during peak demand, and then laid them off when demand began fading. Machines work nights as easily as days, so running them around the clock makes efficient sense. Efficiency rules the day — and the night. There’s no wiggle room.

We’re building an economy that is fast and cheap, but not adaptable to change. Efficiency reveals itself as brittle when conditions shift. Unexpected shortages or surpluses are the hidden cost of automation. Robots can do almost anything faster than humans, except change.

There’s still no toilet paper on shelves, but since the NCAA basketball tournaments were canceled, the country now reportedly has a huge surplus of chicken wings.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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