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The Great Toilet Roll Shortage of 2020

The great canning lid shortage of 75, the great storm of 87, the great snow of 54, the great freeze of 48… will we one day be talking about the great toilet roll shortage of 2020?

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I was listening to the radio on the way into work. The topic of conversation was canning — a method of preserving food in which the food contents are processed and sealed in airtight glass jars — and the fact that there is currently a shortage of canning lids. It turns out that you can use the jars over and over again, but the lids are one-time-use only because they have a special sealing compound around their rims. As part of this program, someone said that the current situation was “…reminiscent of the Great Canning Lid Shortage of 1975…” This reminded me of a British TV sitcom called The Vicar of Dibley starring Dawn French. In one episode called “The Window and the Weather,” the vicar discovers that — following a storm — a tree has smashed one of the church’s stain glass windows. As we see in this video, there’s a very funny scene where one of the characters talks about “The Great Storm,” and another replies, “That wasn’t the great storm, that was a moderately windy night,” and then continues to explain what he considers to have been “The Great Storm.” The conversation subsequently involves discussions of “The Great Wind” and “The Great Snow” and “The Great Frost” and “The Great Freeze.”  
In turn, this reminded me of my recent Things To Do When It Rains column, in which I mentioned ordering a book called Very British Problems. While reading this book, in the chapter on “Very British Weather,” there’s mention of the possibility of an unexpectedly hot day that includes the words, “Sleeping will be impossible and at any given second someone, somewhere, will be comparing the heat to the Summer of 1976.” I remember that summer. We had two whole weeks of sunshine with nary a cloud in the sky and we are still talking about it 44 years later! And, of course, all of this made me think of the recent unexpected shortage of toilet rolls, which commenced around March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic really started to bite deep. This shortage was triggered by panic buying — like what we see where I live when a big storm is heading our way. When the toilet roll shortage commenced, I honestly believed it was going to be a short-term effect, that manufacturers would ramp up production, and that toilet rolls (and disinfecting wipes and suchlike) would be back on the shelves within a week or two. In the event, it took three or four months before one might expect to see toilet rolls on the supermarket shelves on a regular basis. Prior to that, as soon as a new batch arrived, they were immediately snapped up by whoever was lucky enough to be in the store at the time. Even now, finding disinfecting wipes and sprays remains a hit-and-miss affair. Different shortages have their own root causes — sometimes the problem is the global supply chain and issues acquiring raw materials. Other times — like with toilet rolls — sales are typically relatively steady throughout the year, so manufacturers were already running at close to full capacity when the panic buying began. I once read that in the past when we lived in villages, the lucky ones typically had months of food and other supplies stockpiled to carry them through the winters and problem times. By comparison, I also read that modern cities are frighteningly reliant on constant streams of supplies coming in by truck and rail. Also, that if these supplies suddenly ceased, cities typically have no more than three days of food on hand, which means three days before things start to get very ugly indeed. Over the course of the past few months, there have been numerous reports of people fighting over toilet rolls, including stealing them at knife-point or shooting each other in arguments. In this AP story, for example, we hear how one man killed his brother for using too much of his precious paper. One can only imagine how bad things could get if we were down to our last Pop-Tart. If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s (a) how vulnerable we are, (b) how unprepared we were (and still are), and (c) to make sure we all maintain a healthy reserve of toilet rolls. More generally, since we know that disasters can strike, and that there’s always the chance of a super volcano erupting, a rogue asteroid colliding with us, a zombie and/or artificial intelligence apocalypse commencing, or a world-wide shortage of bacon sandwiches, it really wouldn’t hurt to have at least a 3-month supply of emergency food put by. After writing the previous paragraph, I had a quick Google while no one was looking and found this Best Emergency Food Supply – 2020 Buyer’s Guide, which was updated just this month. Stored in Mylar packets, this food has a shelf-life of up to 25 years, which is reasonably close to that of a gas station Twinkie or a McDonalds hamburger. The Buyers Guide’s best choice was My Patriot Supply. If I win the lottery, I will certainly be investing in a cornucopia of culinary treats from this company. In the meantime, I’m left wondering if — in years to come — I will ever hear someone say, “This reminds me of ‘The Great Toilet Roll Shortage of 2020’.” How about you? What are your thoughts on all of this?

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Paul Clarke

Hi Max, love your post and just had to add my own comments.
As an out of work engineer looking for work in March I signed up and joined the ranks of a supermarket as a good delivery driver to peoples homes.
I personally feel our greatest risk is ourselves. The shortages were caused by nothing more than panic. I delivered to homes who had stocks high of loo rolls and bottles of water they did not need.
Shops struggled as meany of thire staff were isolating and had to bring in new people like myself to train. You can only get so much on a HGV lorry so shops had to decide what they would order and balance the demand. Many things went short like flour, eggs, nappies, lemons, beer and even hoysin source! All as shops and the supply chain tried to guess what we would panic over.
In the end there was never a Real shortage from the manufactures. Just people panic buying and believe that’s our greatest risk going forward.

Rick Curl

When things like toilet paper are in short supply they become worth more: https://youtu.be/V5cauQ-qyUg

Aubrey Kagan

Max

After writing the previous paragraph, I had a quick Google while no one was looking

I know you are being facetious, but it is no joke. Google is watching you the whole time
https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2013/05/10/15-ways-google-monitors-you

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