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The Issue With Tissue (Matthew Pelkki Commentary)

3 min read

Can’t find toilet paper at the supermarket? It’s not that your neighbors are hoarding, even as you see everyone grabbing what they can as soon as shelves are stocked. The empty shelves are as much a result of manufacturers not being able to shift production to meet demand.

Here are the facts about toilet tissue supply in the era of a pandemic that is requiring more and more people to stay at home.

► Use of toilet paper at home has increased. People are not working at the office, and so we are indeed using more tissue at home. Georgia-Pacific, maker of the Quilted Northern and Angel Soft brands, has estimated that domestic tissue demand has increased by as much as 40%. Even now, as stay-at-home restrictions are being eased, tissue consumption is still 25% more than typical, according to marketing firm NCSolutions.

The situation would seem to be a good one for landowners with lots of pulpwood that needs to be thinned. During March and April, demand for pulpwood across the South was indeed steady, if not strong.

Arkansas has 19 million acres of forestland and 60% of that is privately owned. Add in the fact that in Arkansas we are growing 13 million tons of wood fiber more than we are harvesting, it would seem like the perfect situation — increased demand draws down excess supply.

Unfortunately, there are complications:

► Toilet tissue used at home is different from what people use at work. Commercial one-ply tissue requires half as much wood fiber to make as domestic two-ply tissues.

► Paper mills are set up to make a lot of commercial tissue because Americans spend a lot of time at work. At least they did until March. Commercial tissue is largely made from recovered fiber in a paper mill, rather than the home-use tissue made from virgin fiber from harvested pulpwood trees.

► The problem is made more difficult by the structure of the paper industry. Paper mills are highly specialized, multibillion-dollar investments and typically run close to maximum capacity 24 hours a day in normal times.

► Not all paper is made in the same way. You cannot shift from making cardboard to tissue paper, and the specialized tissue-making equipment is not present at every mill, even if the fiber-making capacity exists. Adding capacity may cost $100 million or more and take six-12 months to complete. While mills can shift some production of one-ply to two-ply tissue, the difference in fiber sources (recycled vs. virgin) limits this shift.

► Commercial tissues are shipped in huge quantities while store-bought tissue is in packs of four to 24 rolls — the packaging capacity for consumer products. That further limits the ability to shift the type of tissue produced.

► Lastly, many paper mills are importing virgin fiber.

Georgia-Pacific’s huge tissue facility at Crossett, for example, is importing all of its virgin fiber. So landowners and loggers are not benefiting from this increase in demand, and the paper industry can only respond in a limited fashion in terms of processing.

In either scenario, continued stay-at-home or a reopened economy, there will likely be no boom for landowners who need their forests thinned of excess pulpwood.

Matthew Pelkki is a professor and the Clippert Endowed Chair of Forestry in the College of Forestry, Agriculture & Natural Resources at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
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