The real reason paper towels are starting to sell out again

Turn a corner and enter the paper products aisle at your favorite store, and you might get a sense of déjà vu. "Wait, am I back in March?" you might ask yourself. "Why are there no paper towels on the shelves?" As it turns out, you're having neither a flashback nor a nightmare. Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, paper towel makers are still having a hard time keeping up with demand (via CNN).

Some of our buying habits have returned to normal, and many store shelves have filled up again. That's not the case with paper towels, though. Six months after a wave of panic-buying caused stores to run out of paper products, cleaning supplies, and even flour, companies such as Georgia-Pacific and Proctor & Gamble are still having trouble making enough paper towels to keep shelves stocked. We checked, and you can order paper towels in bulk online — USA Today compiled a handy list of online outlets currently offering paper towels, and you're likely to find your favorite brand or style there. But CNN and The Wall Street Journal both recently reported shortages both online and in brick-and-mortar stores.

What gives? It's been half a year since stay-at-home orders caused the first wave of panic-buying. Why haven't paper towel factories added extra work shifts or increased capacity? And why do we keep buying so many paper towels?

Paper towel factories were already at full capacity when the pandemic hit

First of all, paper towel makers were already working around the clock and at full capacity when the pandemic first started peaking in the United States. The Wall Street Journal reported that Georgia-Pacific's Sparkle paper towel facility in Alabama was running 24/7 when the pandemic, in a certain sense, reached the plant. The factory wasn't initially struck by the virus itself. That was still several weeks away from that part of the country in late February, when the Sparkle factory started receiving unusually large orders from retailers — five or 10 times normal.

Overall, paper-towel sales increased 150 percent in March, meaning that people who normally bought two rolls of paper towels per week were buying five. (If you factor in all the people who couldn't find any paper towels, then you realize many people were buying way more than that.) The best that factory in Alabama could do was increase production 25 percent by reducing the number of different varieties of paper towels it produced, The Wall Street Journal said.

People are still cleaning more, so they're still buying more paper towels

Since the initial run on paper towels back in the spring, demand has remained unusually high — currently about 25 percent more than before the pandemic, according to The Wall Street Journal. The demand for toilet paper, on the other hand, has returned to normal. Hoarders apparently stocked up enough on TP to get them through the pandemic so far. Paper towels are in extra-high demand because virus-wary people continue to clean around the house more than usual and use paper towels as a substitute for even scarcer sanitizing wipes.

As for paper-towel companies building another assembly line, or a whole new factory, that couldn't happen in a matter of months. The main piece of equipment used to make paper towels takes years to build, according to The Wall Street Journal. Besides, the paper towel business offers such a low profit margin, it doesn't make sense to build a whole new factory, no matter how fast it could go up. It won't be needed and will just be money down the drain once people go back to their regular paper towel-buying habits. 

Makers of everyday household items are now working on ways to remain efficient while adding capacity where they can to hopefully meet increased demand during a crisis.