Panic Buying: Toilet Paper Today, What’s Tomorrow?

Nicole Arcodia

Videos of consumers fighting over toilet paper, pictures of people lining up outside of stores to buy toilet paper, and security guards protecting toilet paper have become commonplace in the last couple weeks.[1] Due to excessive overbuying by some consumers, many stores have been forced to limit toilet paper purchases to one package per customer.[2] Where does the hysteria for a lack of toilet paper come from?

This unexpected run on toilet paper has confused many people given that an increased need for toilet paper is unrelated to the symptoms of coronavirus.[3] This stockpiling and hoarding of an essential good like toilet paper, however, is not an uncommon reaction when people are scared.[4] Empty shelves cause people to panic: there is fear of running out, fear of the unknown, and fear of what is to come.[5] Social media, particularly Instagram videos of people panic-buying toilet paper, memes about the lack of toilet paper, and pictures of empty shelves around the world have just added to the hysteria.[6]

A run on toilet paper is just the start. It has been almost three weeks since shelter-in-place and social distancing orders were first instilled throughout the country.[7] These shelter-in-place orders require Americans to work from home, students to take classes remotely from home, and people to stay in their houses unless otherwise necessary.[8] It began in California, and as of April 3, 2020, 297 million people in 38 states are being urged to stay home indefinitely.[9] However, the peak of coronavirus is still an estimated two to three weeks away, as is the peak use of resources.[10] Therefore, as a country it is necessary that we do not let hysteria and fear drive us to overbuy. People are encouraged to stock up on water, canned food, frozen food, and medication for at most a few weeks,[11] while still realizing that they can return to stores to buy more essentials if they run out.[12]

Luckily, ninety percent of toilet paper consumed in the United States is produced within the United States.[13] Therefore, although there is a shortage now, toilet paper producers expect the surge to subside and the supply to continue to grow, fixing availability problems.[14] However, for the time being, hoarding unnecessary items like toilet paper depletes these items for everyone else.[15] In this unprecedented time, an excess of something as simple as toilet paper will not protect people against coronavirus; instead it will keep others from getting supplies, food, and products that they need.

Today, fear and uncertainty looms, but there must remain room for hope and unity. That starts with something as simple as toilet paper. Instead of joining the hysteria, making decisions based on fear, running to the store and hoarding food and supplies, only get what is necessary. Further, focus on positive stories such as the benefit that coronavirus is having on the environment.[16] In Venice, dolphins were seen in canals that used to be murky, nitrogen dioxide pollution over China has dropped significantly, and Seattle, New York and San Francisco have each seen a substantial drop in harmful pollution.[17]

As we endure the coming weeks and months in this frightening and unprecedented time, it is important to not let fear and uncertainty cloud our judgment and together we can come out of this pandemic more unified.

[1] Todd C. Frankel, The Toilet Paper Shortage is Real. But It Should be Brief, The Washington Post (March 13, 2020 3:36PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/03/13/toilet-paper-shortage/.

[2] Michelle Toh, It’s Crazy’: Panic Buying Forces Stores to Limit Purchases of Toilet Paper and Masks, CNN Business (March 6, 2020 6:13AM), https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/06/business/coronavirus-global-panic-buying-toilet-paper/index.html.

[3] Frankel, supra note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. In 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, there was a rush for household products including toilet paper. Id.

[6] Adam Westbrook, People Around the World Are Panic-Buying… Toilet Paper?, The New York Times (March 12, 2020),  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/opinion/toilet-paper-coronavirus.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.

[7] Sarah Mervosh, Denis Lu, et. al, See Which States and Cities Have Told Residents to Stay Home, The New York Times (April 2, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-stay-at-home-order.html.

[8] Id. It allows people to leave their homes for necessities: to go to the grocery store, to go to the doctor, and to exercise. Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Anagha Srikanth, Changing America: Here’s When the Coronavirus Will Peak in Your States, The Hill (April 2, 2020),  https://thehill.com/changing-america/well-being/prevention-cures/490856-when-will-coronaviruses-cases-peak-in-your-state.

[11] Westbrook, supra note 6.

[12] Toh, supra note 2.

[13] Frankel, supra note 1.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Denise Chow, Coronavirus Shutdowns Have Unintended Climate Benefits: Cleaner Air, Clearer Water, NBC News (March 31, 2020 4:34PM), https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/coronavirus-shutdowns-have-unintended-climate-benefits-n1161921.

[17] Id.

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