I’ve heard and read that it’s really difficult to get toilet paper these days. I’ve seen that, at one of the local supermarkets, that the shelves in the toilet paper / paper towel section are the most consistently empty (though it’s been more than a week since I went to that supermarket, so I don’t know if that has changed). This doesn’t directly concern me, because I stopped using toilet paper at home long before the current coronavirus crisis.
And whether it directly concerns me or not, difficulty in distributing toilet paper is far, far from the most important aspect of the current crisis. I wish that there was nothing worse about the crisis than toilet paper supply chain problems. But even though it is far from being the most important thing, it is still a thing. So, toilet paper shortages.
The obvious explanation for the disappearance of toilet paper from store shelves is panic-buying. And everyone says that panic-buying is, at the very minimum, making the problem more extreme that it would be otherwise.
Yet, I’ve read that there is also a major supply chain problem, which would exist even without panic-buying. According to this article and this article, the supply chain for commercial toilet paper (workplaces, schools, etc.) and for retail toilet paper (for home use) are very different, and it’s difficult to shift toilet paper from the commercial supply chain to the retail supply chain, especially within a short period of time. Meanwhile, people are going to the bathroom at home a lot more often than they did before all of the shelter-in-place policies, so they are using more retail toilet paper and less commercial toilet paper.
I don’t remember the source (sorry) but I’ve also read that, because toilet paper is a) cheap / has a low profit margin and b) takes up a lot of storage space compared to other items sold in stores, stores/warehouses don’t carry large inventories. Thus, any disruption can cause shortages faster than for many other products.
Meanwhile, bidet sales are skyrocketing. And that article about bidets selling super-well was published before an opinion piece in the New York Times urged readers to switch to bidets. As I’ve said before, I don’t care for bidets myself. I predict that some of the people who get these new bidets will discover that they don’t care for them either, and switch back to using toilet paper whenever that is feasible for them. I also predict that some of these people getting new bidets will love them, and never go back to using toilet paper at home.
I’m sure many people have also (re-)discovered that old newspapers, junk mail, etc. can be used as a toilet paper substitute. I’ve read somewhere (maybe in If Walls Could Talk maybe not) that in the early twentieth century using old newspapers/catalogs/etc. in the toilet was the norm, and that toilet paper made specifically for that use was considered a luxury item.
I imagine someone out there is also trying family cloth for the first time. And we’re less likely to see articles about them because they can do it quietly by re-purposing old fabrics. It’s not like bidets, where journalists can ask the bidet manufacturers about their sales. For what it’s worth, my blog post about family cloth has NOT seen any recent uptick in views (among my non-recent posts, it’s the wuxia posts which are getting the most hits lately, not sure what the meaning of that is; this post has also been getting a lot of views lately). I think even fewer people trying family cloth will stay with it long-term than the people trying out bidets. But hey, I made the long-term switch to family cloth, and I didn’t even have a worldwide crisis to motivate me, so it’s possible.
(I will admit that one of the appeals of family cloth was the thought that, during some vague future crisis, I wouldn’t be dependent on a regular supply of toilet paper. But I didn’t expect that such a crisis would happen so suddenly).
To the extent that people permanently use alternatives to toilet paper, such as bidets or family cloth, it will decrease the long-term consumer demand for toilet paper. Hopefully, that will lead to fewer trees getting cut, or if they are still cut they will be used for a more valuable purpose.