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Five weeks into shelter-in-place, it’s still hard to find toilet paper. I’ve never seen anything like it—but did you know this isn’t our nation’s first paranoia-induced toilet paper shortage? It turns out there’s a lot we didn’t know about this basic consumer product. In this post I’ll delve into the following:
- The great TP famine of ‘73
- Non-pandemic toilet paper hoarding
- How unnecessary toilet paper actually is
- The psychology of toilet paper stockpiling
- Toilet paper hoarding as microcosm
(Check out these stoked shoppers. One is saying to the other, “Look, not only do they have toilet paper here, but a choice of brands! It’s like 2019!”)
The great TP famine of ‘73
The world has seen pandemics before, and it’s seen worse. But this bizarre toilet paper hoarding? Actually, that’s happened before too, and what’s more, there was no global crisis precipitating it. This was back in 1973, and as described here, it all started with a congressman who, irritated with a relatively unimportant pulp paper shortage, which was “allegedly caused by companies that increased paper exports to avoid Federal price controls,” took to the American media to drum up support for his constituents. The press ignored him until he reframed the issue as a potential toilet paper shortage. This they jumped on, as did news agencies globally. Pockets of Americans started stockpiling, though this fell short of a national phenomenon. Then Johnny Carson got involved.
Johnny worked the news tidbit into his opening routine, during which—struggling to keep a straight face—he declared, “I wanna tell you, it is serious.” After that broadcast, everyone went nuts and started hoarding toilet paper, just as we are now. Perhaps they were being even sillier, believing in a nonexistent supply problem without even having an ostensible cause to point to. (Even before the Carson piece, the Scott Paper Company went on television to confirm that their production was as high as ever.)
Is it ever rational to second-guess the toilet paper supply?
There certainly are circumstances in which it’s perfectly rational to expect a dearth of toilet paper. One of these is large public events. I learned early on to bring my own TP roll to bike races, as the portable toilets often run out. One year at the Everest Challenge stage race, a guy coming out of the San-O-Let warned me, “There’s no paper. I had to use my arm warmers.” I thought he was joking, until I got in there … how disgusting. Fortunately, I’d planned ahead.
The other time you should BYOTP is when traveling to certain countries. Some of them simply don’t use toilet paper (more on this later) and others tend to run out due to theft. A Quora discussion on the topic “Why is there no toilet paper in Chinese public toilets?” tackled this apparently widespread problem. A few respondents explained the rationale behind the behavior:
It’s because they used to [be] poor or they [are] actually poor now … in 2018, Chinese per capita disposable income is 28228 Yuan or about 4000$ per year. And rural people’s per capita disposable income is 14617 Yuan or about 2000$ per year, 40 Yuan per day. Let’s say one roll of toilet paper is maybe 2 Yuan, so it’s almost 1/20 of rural people’s income for one day.
For some old people, extreme poverty had a destructive influence on their morality—Stealing will let you survive and being lawful makes you (and your children) starve to death.
One correspondent even provided this security camera footage.
Lest you think only Internet randos are reporting this, the New York Times wrote here about how technology is being used in China to address the problem:
The authorities in Beijing are fighting back, going so far as to install high-tech toilet paper dispensers equipped with facial recognition software in several restrooms. Before entering restrooms in the park, visitors must now stare into a computer mounted on the wall for three seconds before a machine dispenses a sheet of toilet paper, precisely two feet in length. If visitors require more, they are out of luck. The machine will not dispense a second sheet to the same person for nine minutes.
Still, the prevalence of toilet paper theft is subject to exaggeration. One person in the Quora thread chimed in to state that he generally has no trouble finding toilet paper, providing ample photographic evidence. He also shared this photo of a method used to deter waste:
Perhaps I’ll steal that idea and post a handy usage guide in my own bathroom!
Is toilet paper even necessary?
Sometimes, a westerner’s inability to find toilet paper is a matter of foreign custom. Russians, for example, used scrap paper until fairly recently. As described here, their first toilet paper factory was built in 1969, and due to low output the product was strictly rationed. One citizen recalled, “The lucky ones who managed to buy it would thread rolls on a string and walk home wearing their spoils like a necklace, to the envy of passers-by.”
This scarcity of toilet paper in Russia continued for decades. A respondent to this Quora thread wrote, “I was in Russia for one month in 1985. There were baskets of ripped up newspapers in each bathroom stall.” A friend of mine who visited in the ‘80s reported a similar scenario, and in fact accidently walked in on two maids as they cleaned his hotel room. They were caught red-handed with the roll of toilet paper he’d brought from home, passing it back and forth and giggling. It must have seemed absurdly posh to them.
Moreover, many countries simply don’t want toilet paper. This fascinating thread provides lots of testimony from people, mainly in India, who consider it disgusting that anybody uses toilet paper instead of water. Some examples:
Unless I live in a desert, I would never want to carry my mess in my pants for days!
Let’s imagine, a crow shits on your shoulder or head … Will you still use a tissue paper to clean it?
Water is more efficient and practical for a populous country like India where we have plenty of rivers and ponds. It will be quite impractical to switch to tissues.
This valiantly but imperfectly translated assessment actually blames the western toilet paper tradition for the Black Death:
Britain enraptured from crapping from the windows … within the eighteenth century and victimization pans to shit in rooms so property somebody carry it and inflicting plague and Black Death to toilet rolls. We washed our bottoms and washed our hands at the moment. So, no plague. No Black Death.
One helpful respondent offers this challenge:
Put some Nutella on your right hand. Then wipe it off with a piece of paper, preferably toilet paper. Put some Nutella on your left hand. Now wash this with water, preferably a faucet. Now touch and smell both the hands. The right hand would smell of Nutella and you may feel some remnant on it too. But the left hand neither smells of Nutella nor there is anything to touch. Now imagine. Put your bodily waste instead of Nutella. Now tell me, which one is more hygienic??
From this same thread I learned that Pakistanis also prefer water to toilet paper; that Italians also do; and that an American who lived in India for 38 years learned to prefer water to toilet paper. He writes, “There is nothing better than a jet of water to pressure-wash the exhaust port of your Death Star.”
Within this anti-TP context, it’s hard for me to understand why—at a time when people all over the world are dying of a horrible virus—Americans are getting so worked up about their preferred method of, uh, cleaning up. What’s the big deal, when toilet paper alternatives clearly exist? Maybe it’s because America is also out of hand sanitizer?
Which brings us to …
The psychology of toilet paper stockpiling
Chances are, lots of people hoard toilet paper simply because others are doing it. Imitation is perhaps the quintessential human behavior: it’s how we all learned to talk, after all. Where such copycat behavior is concerned, rest assured very little contemplation of supply chain fundamentals is going on.
Beyond that, this hoarding behavior may give us some sense of control at a time when we feel we have little. As articulated by this article in The Conversation, “Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.” The article also points out, “Modern economies run on trust and confidence. COVID-19 is breaking down that trust. People are losing confidence that they will be able to go outside and get what they need when they need it.”
I have to think the CDC’s reversal on wearing masks hasn’t helped maintain this trust. “You don’t need masks,” they told us, and look what happened: those who defied the CDC and hoarded masks anyway are now almost the only people who have them. In this way cynicism and distrust have been reinforced.
Toilet paper hoarding as microcosm
There is no overall supply problem with toilet paper, and actual usage of this product is not increasing. If anything, we’re all scared shitless. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Therefore, if nobody altered their behavior in any way—that is, if they purchased toilet paper on the same schedule they always have—we would all continue to have plenty.
And yet, in the short term we don't, because too many people are behaving irrationally. It doesn't take unanimous foolishness to create a problem; just a critical mass. After all, it doesn’t help me to think rationally about the toilet paper factories running at full capacity, because irrational behavior is creating outsized demand. The shortage, in short, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The paranoid and/or highly organized types have far, far more toilet paper than they need, while the optimistic and/or disorganized among us are running out. The clear thinkers don’t get to lord their sensible approach over anyone; instead, they’re trampled by the stampeding masses.
In a more general sense, one downside of freedom is our vulnerability in the face of what can amount to crowdsourced public policy. Consider the problem of non-vaccinators (aka anti-vaxxers): they don't perceive diseases like measles or HPV as a threat because they've never encountered them, so they declare these diseases a non-threat and stop vaccinating their children. By behaving ignorantly, they are creating widespread problems that affect everyone in their cohort, and sometimes beyond. Measles, for example, could be eradicated worldwide if everybody were vaccinated; instead, it persists and is making a comeback. (As reported by the CDC, last year saw more than 22 outbreaks, with well over a thousand victims, here in the US—a country where this disease was thought to be eliminated 20 years ago.)
This same phenomenon could happen with COVID-19, as frustrated citizens demand an end to shelter-in-place and/or ignore the rules. By mistaking the success of social distancing for a lack of need for it, they lead us back into danger. Lashing out at the authority they’re tired of bending to, they err on the side of undue optimism. Oddly, this is almost the reverse of the toilet paper irrationality: in that case, they’re being unduly paranoid about something they have relatively easy influence over. As the Conversation article notes, TP hoarding “is an example of ‘zero risk bias,’ in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.” In other words, it’s easier to hoard toilet paper than to shelter in place … never mind the return on investment.
Where the microcosm breaks down
Fortunately, there is enough toilet paper to go around, ultimately, and we'll reach a point where so many people have so much stockpiled, they'll eventually stop hoarding it. Their garages will get so overrun with TP, they'd feel silly buying more, and will finally learn to pass up their next opportunity to continue stockpiling. Eventually, the shelves will be replenished, and then the hysteria will die down and we'll go back to normal, which consists of all Americans having enough TP in their homes that they don't worry about it. Supply and demand will once again be in perfect balance. You might call it “hoard immunity.”
Alas, the world's overall resources don't work like that ... there really isn’t enough to go around, which is why a lot of people are malnourished, don't have educational opportunities, don't have great access to affordable health care, etc. The supply and demand of money has never been in perfect balance. Just about everybody wants more money, and it never starts to look ridiculous to stockpile it. Industries like advertising and marketing exist to increase demand, irrespective of the target market's standard of living, which in turn drives up monetary greed.
This brings us to what may be the harshest, most protracted aspect of this pandemic: long after the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and mask shortages are over; when the shelter-in-place rules have finally been relaxed; well after the coronavirus has either run its course or been thwarted by a vaccine, we will likely be stuck in a terrible recession. And unlike the toilet paper shortage, it won’t affect people equally. Once again, the have-nots will take it the hardest.
Obviously there’s not much I can do about COVID-19 or its economic devastation. But where toilet paper is concerned, I will do my part: I haven't stockpiled any and I'm not going to. This is my symbolic stand, the simple, tiny gesture I’ll make in solidarity. I'll leave some toilet paper for the next guy and if I run out, so be it. Life will go on. (Or not.)
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