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Why the toilet paper shortage is about more than hoarding

On a recent Friday afternoon in western Iowa, a man was waiting in line to buy toilet paper at a local Dollar General store when another customer started giving the man grief about it, according to local police.  

At issue was the amount of toilet paper being purchased. After feeling threatened by the other customer’s aggressive behavior, the toilet paper buyer displayed a gun in self-defense.

“It escalated almost to the point of a physical confrontation,” Atlantic Iowa police Lt. Devin Hogue told USA TODAY.

In the end, neither person was injured, but the initial aggressor was charged this week with disorderly conduct, adding to the recent police blotter over bath tissue.  In Florida last month, sheriff’s deputies arrested a man for allegedly stealing 66 toilet paper rolls from a Marriott hotel. In California last week, Beverly Hills cops found 192 rolls of toilet paper in a stolen SUV.

All are symptoms of the shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic – a supply shortfall caused by a surge in demand that goes beyond just panic buying and hoarding.

Shelves are picked bare of toilet paper at a grocery store in Burbank, Calif., on Saturday.

So why can’t we find toilet paper yet? 

Experts say empty store shelves also are caused by a fundamental shift in demand for a certain kind of toilet paper for use at home, as well as kinks in the supply chain between factories and stores.

Yet there is hope: Two of the main ingredients used to make toilet paper – paper fiber and water – are in strong supply. Production is being ramped up at American factories operating 24-7. And experts expect a more abundant stock soon on store shelves.

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