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Hiding in Plain Sight: Where toilet paper fits in the Forestry Industry

By: Andrea Haines

Over the past few months, walking into a store and heading to the toiletry aisle only to find bare shelves has been the normal for many Americans. Even ordering toilet paper and “essential” needs online has been a defeating task due to the implications of COVID-19. While the meaning of “why” consumers flocked to overstock paper products in their homes may remain an unsolved mystery, the need for other items in similarity has also put stress on market balance.  

The topic of “toilet paper” can seem somewhat comical when it comes to reasons for an economic wave within a semi-secured industry, but it doesn’t just come down to that single product. When referring to paper products, the generic consumer mostly thinks about their own needs. In fact, that’s generally how the market works considering supply and demand. However, many consumers are ironically unaware of the medical demand for paper products needed to care for patients, even among the “make your own mask” call to action.

where toilet paper fits in the forest industry

“I have said many times before, our industry is often overlooked and misunderstood,” says Elizabeth Hill, Executive Director for Maryland Forests Association, Inc. “Many people don’t get why wood is essential. After all, it isn’t the first thing you think of when looking at the food supply chain.”

A Movement towards Imbalance 

“The pandemic has had a significant impact on forest communities and businesses, just like many other communities and sectors,” comments Nick Smith, Executive Director for Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities. “Early on, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security identified the forest sector as an essential critical infrastructure workforce as the nation responds to COVID-19. Those who harvest, manufacture, and transport wood-based products are helping to ensure our medical professionals, first responders, and the rest of us have the essentials we need to weather the crisis.”

A consumer might gaze into the wall of empty shelving at the local grocery store, and the thought process may be to assume that all ends of the forest-products industry is in the safe zone, economically speaking. Feedback from struggling businesses suggests that having to shift supplies into toilet paper needs has negatively impacted the production of other lumber-based products.

“While the pandemic – and resulting quarantines – elevated demand for products like toilet paper, the resulting economic recession temporarily reduced demand for other wood products, such as lumber,” shares Smith. “The reduced demand has forced some forest-product manufacturers to curtail or temporarily close their operations, which impacts the whole forest-products supply chain. This has created imbalances in the markets, though there are signs the markets have bottomed-out and are very slowly beginning to recover.”

Hill explains, “While we no longer have a paper mill here in Maryland, our wood is used to feed plants in surrounding states. Toilet paper seems to be one item on everyone’s minds these days, but these plants produce a variety of products used to package both food and medical supplies.”

"Toilet paper seems to be one item on everyone’s minds these days, but these plants produce a variety of products used to package both food and medical supplies."

She further adds, “Factories are designed to accommodate large users – restaurants and institutions.” This dip in demand has temporary induced layoffs of employees, shutting off production lines. “Mills are also stepping production down and placing loggers on quotas because they aren’t able to move some of their most valuable grades of lumber due to lack of exports and construction,” says Hill. “These conditions are leading to too much wood in the pipeline, and it will likely be a slow recovery, but we are resilient.”

Cause and Effect within the Industry

As businesses are adjusting to new plans-of-action, Americans are slowly recovering from the aftermath of pandemic life, easing up slightly on heavy demands of medical and household goods. This is a positive move that affects consumers of forest by-products. “If there is a reduced demand for lumber, then manufacturers are processing fewer sawlogs,” explains Smith. “This can result in less residual material available for other products, which in turn drive up the cost for things like animal bedding.”

The Mid-Atlantic region has always been striving to make progress to strengthen its resources and markets. Smith expresses, “The key is having strong markets across the forest sector, because everyone benefits, from the landowner to the end consumer.”

Tom Johnson, President of Eastern Shore Forest Products based in Salisbury, Maryland, announced last August an expansion to meet growing local and national demands in pet bedding and high-quality poultry bedding. He stated in the announcement provided by the Maryland Forests Association, Inc., “A healthy forest is a healthy Chesapeake Bay. We believe that our continuous effort to create new markets for Delmarva-produced forest products will go a long way in ensuring that current forests are sustainably managed for future forests.” Johnson updates, “The expansion is well on its way to completion. We expect to start making new product in mid-July of this year. The first phase of our expansion will see our need for wood increase by about 60,000 tons per year.”

Smith shares, “An important takeaway is that the forest sector is diverse, but interconnected. For example, we can’t have paper, tissue, and hygiene products without raw logs and lumber. It all starts with the demand for logs and the harvesting of timber.” Landowners are encouraged to keep their forests as healthy forests, and incentive is put into place to actively manage their own lands. “Demand for lumber, such as for home construction, is necessary to keep our sawmills open. And pulp and paper manufacturers rely on chips and other residual products from the sawmills to power their own mills, and produce our everyday paper, tissue, and hygiene products,” he shares.

A Second Look

When reaching for that bath tissue, consider the process it takes to create it. Two sources start the ball rolling: virgin pulp from trees or pulp generated from recycled paper that is reprocessed and turned into pulp. A representative from Proctor & Gamble Co. explains, “In essence, pulp is delivered to paper mills that are dried and flattened, turning it into large rolls of paper sometimes considered ‘parent rolls’. The thinner sheets of paper are embossed with a pattern or brand logo to create more thickness and promote absorbency. The last stage is to cut them into toilet paper and roll onto tubes for consumer use.”

The word, “essential” can be defined by many different organizations, but the forest product industry has proven itself to be highly needed in times of both normalcy and crisis. The notation of a forest “people chain”, brought forth by author Wendy A. Farrand, is vital to sustainable forest management. “The pandemic should give us an appreciation for wood-products supply chain and the basic resources we depend on – and those who provide them,” concludes Smith.

Hopefully soon, we can safely return to less concerning days, debating if the toilet paper roll should be installed “over or under”.

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