Coronavirus and the forest product supply chain


The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every person in Washington state. Social distancing, stay-home orders and the closure of non-essential businesses have modified how we now live, work and recreate in profound ways.

Sheltering in place also has significantly impacted consumer habits. Generally speaking, we’re purchasing more groceries as dining out is not an option in our immediate future and other household items like toilet paper, hand soap and cleaning products are in higher demand as we spend more time in our homes using our own supply.

The shortage of home-use paper products is one glaring example that has garnered headlines and generated a plethora of online wisecracks, memes, and GIFs as news outlets and consumers report of grocery stores struggling to keep in stock toilet paper, paper towels and facial tissues.

Aiming toward efficiency and minimal waste, modern-day forestry is more integrated than ever. Virtually every inch of the tree is used as lumber for construction, and personal care products like toilet paper, paper towels and sanitizing wipes. After harvesting timber for lumber, paper and pulp rely on wood chips during the milling process and forest residuals — small trees, branches, tops and other remaining bits left after harvest as raw materials to make toilet paper and other products.

With the timber industry operating in such an integrated manner, it stands to reason that when one part of the supply chain is disturbed, it will impact others.

Advocating to keep the supply chain open, paper industry leaders and newspapers have urged Gov. Jay Inslee to modify his list of essential businesses to include home construction. Pausing home construction has had the unintended consequence of interrupting the paper goods supply chain they reason.

According to the Seattle Times’ editorial board:

The effects of a construction halt ripple through Washington’s forest-products industry and could affect everyone, particularly those hunting for toilet paper.

When construction stops for an extended period, sawmills curtail production, reducing the output of sawdust and wood chips necessary to make paper products. That’s a big concern when mills producing toilet paper face huge increases in demand.

The Seattle Times’ editorial connects the dots further by reporting that a Georgia-Pacific mill along the Columbia River in Oregon relies on Washington state to get “50% of the wood fiber it uses” to make a “large share of toilet paper used west of the Rockies.”

Wrote the Seattle Times’ editorial board:

Paper mills are deemed essential and may continue operating. In addition to toilet paper and paper towels, they make packaging and materials essential to healthcare and food production.

But being allowed to operate doesn’t matter if materials needed for production are unavailable.

The Seattle Times’ concluded its editorial praising the Governor for his leadership and actions to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. But it also urged him to modify his essential business list to help ensure that the paper goods supply chain remains uninterrupted.

Adjustments are inevitable as more is learned about the intended and unintended consequences of public-safety orders.

One such change should allow residential construction to resume, keep mills going — and prevent mayhem that will ensue if toilet paper becomes even more scarce.

What the Seattle Times’ editorial and others have made clear is that more must be done to help everyone – consumers, policymakers and regulators – better understand the inter-connectedness of this vital industry.