Why Are There Still Not Enough Paper Towels?


Long after the coronavirus sparked a run on paper towels, retailers can’t keep their shelves full and it's unlikely they will for a while. That's because producers have no plans to build new manufacturing capacity, since the central piece of the machinery needed to make paper towels takes years to assemble. The scarcity is rooted in one hard and fast rule held by most businesses — make only what you can sell quickly. That’s why the manufacturers of paper products only order enough materials to keep production lines going, have only enough rail cars for a day’s worth of output, and stock only enough items on a shelf to last until the next batch arrives. Known as “lean manufacturing,” the rule causes major problems in the case of catastrophes such as pandemics and weather disasters. With manufacturers receiving orders for 5-10 times the amount they would normally produce, shortages were bound to occur. Now, they’re realizing that their drive for efficiency hindered their ability to respond to the coronavirus crisis and now they’re playing catch-up. So, don’t look for shelves to be stocked with paper towels anytime soon.