Toilet Paper Shortages May Be Coming Back Due To Lack Of Shipping Containers

Image for article titled Toilet Paper Shortages May Be Coming Back Due To Lack Of Shipping Containers
Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images (Getty Images)

Do not adjust your blog-reading device, that headline is not from a year ago. Toilet paper is just the latest necessity to suffer in the global shipping container shortage, and we could see high prices and empty shelves again in American supermarkets.


The world’s largest producer of wood pulp is having a hell of a time moving its product around the world, according to this report from Bloomberg:

Suzano SA primarily ships its pulp in cargo vessels known as break bulk. With demand surging for ships that carry ribbed steel containers, the squeeze is starting to spill over to break bulk and threatens to delay the company’s shipments, Chief Executive Officer Walter Schalka said in an interview.

Of course that’s happening at a time when demand for residential toilet paper has gone way up and consumers have taken to stockpiling and panic buying. Schalka is concerned that the shipping problems are going to snowball and only get worse from here. Significant disruptions to the pulp trade could eventually impact supplies of toilet paper if producers don’t have ample inventories.

Sao Paulo-based Suzano is already concerned about the risk of exporting less in March than the company had expected, and being forced to roll over some shipments into April, Schalka said. With competition increasing for cargo vessels, break-bulk ships are berthing at the company’s terminals less often than usual.

It’s not just the container shortage that is affecting worldwide supplies of everything from petrochemicals to coffee. The Ever Given crisis also put a delay on necessary supplies, Business Insider reports. Snarls that the mega container ship caused are still being worked out in global shipping supply chain, which was already in knots to begin with.

Ports around the world are seeing backups persist as ordering and shipping demand increased during to the pandemic. This week, two dozen ships were anchored off the coast of California waiting their turn to unload cargo in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Wall Street Journal reports. One had been waiting almost two weeks as of Monday. These two ports alone handle a third of the goods coming into America. And as the Journal pointed out last month, the global supply chain was already cracking under the strain:

Supply chain woes mounted world-wide for makers of everything from cars and clothing to home siding and medical needle containers, as the extreme Texas weather and port backlogs compounded problems for manufacturers already beset by pandemic disruptions.

Toyota Motor Corp. , Honda Motor Co. and Samsung Electronics Co. were the latest multinational companies to chime in about setbacks, with the two auto makers saying Wednesday they would halt production at plants in North America. Toyota cited a shortage of petrochemicals, manufacturing of which has been hobbled by last month’s Texas freeze. Honda pointed to a combination of port issues, the semiconducter shortage, pandemic-related problems and the crippling U.S. weather.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only natural disaster to affect shipping, either. Extreme weather this year dumped a record number of shipping containers overboard and sent them to the bottom of the ocean. One theory that tries to explain why so many containers have been lost recently is that older, less stable containers have been pressed into use because of the shortage.



Unless there is some supply chain nuance that is foreign trade and/or container dependent, I’m not sure this is going to pose much of a problem for the US except insofar as it might cause an artificial shortage through panic buying, again. My (mis)understanding is that some 90% of US toilet paper is produced domestically and most of the rest is imported from Canada, with a minority contribution from Mexico, which gives the option of road transport.

Where other countries get their TP (though they use rather a lot less of the stuff per capita than we do) is of course a set of different questions and might be vulnerable to container-related supply-chain and delivery risk points.


Speaking of toilet paper and suchlike, the Natural Resources Defense Council has released version #2, so to speak, of The Issue With Tissue, a report on the sustainability of household paper products...

I just received a box of TP made from 100% recycled stock with 95% post-consumer content; they also have a bamboo option. Ironically enough, they might be more vulnerable to a container shortage, or perhaps more accurately a container distribution problem, because they make it in China... for now, anyway. (’re%20an%20Australian%2Downed,our%20manufacturing%20operations%20in%20China.) Not crazy about the overseas shipping aspect, but it’s a drop in the bucket of global trade, and  I do like the causes they support on, er, the back end, though.