KEYSTONE CROSSROADS – From the window of his office at Proctor and Gamble’s paper plant in Wyoming County, Jose De Los Rios can see plumes of steam rising — the byproduct of wood pulp being turned into Charmin toilet paper.
Over the last six weeks, De Los Rios said, those plumes have gotten steadily thicker.
“We are producing more Charmin than we have ever produced before,” said De Los Rios, an environmental compliance manager and plant spokesperson.
As people across the country continue to track their local supermarket’s supplier schedules and scour the internet to find the white stuff, toilet paper manufacturers in Pa. say they’re rushing to keep supply from wiping out — and are still surprised by their turn in the spotlight.
“I never expected such an infatuation with toilet paper as we see right now,” said Marcal Paper CEO Rob Baron.
‘Flow to work’
Tucked along a bend in the Susquehanna River, Proctor and Gamble’s Mehoopany plant plays an outsize role in the rural community it sits in. The plant has about 2,200 workers — more than double the population of Mehoopany township.
The paper mill is Proctor and Gamble’s largest in the United States.
The coronavirus outbreak — and subsequent nationwide run on toilet paper — has shone a spotlight on the mill. Photos circulating on social media show dozens of semi trucks purportedly lining up here to pick up loads of toilet paper to supply an anxious nation.
To meet the demand, the plant has delayed upgrades and maintenance on its equipment, reduced the number of products it makes, and reassigned non-manufacturing employees to positions on the production line.[It’s] what we call ‘flow to the work,’” De Los Rios said.
The plant has taken a number of measures to keep its employees healthy, including introducing daily temperature checks, and staggering shift times to avoid crowds.
Those efforts haven’t been entirely successful: recently the plant had to send a production team home to quarantine and shut down some equipment for deep-cleaning when some team members began displaying symptoms of COVID-19, according to Proctor and Gamble spokesperson Tonia Elrod. As of April 17, Elrod said no plant workers had tested positive for the virus, but she would not confirm how many workers currently have symptoms. “As you might imagine, that’s ever-changing,” she wrote in an email.
In Chester, Pa., Kimberly Clark’s paper mill generally churns out 2 million rolls of toilet paper a day.
These days, the mill’s 570 employees are producing “a lot more,” said plant manager Jeff Hutter.
The mill exclusively makes Scott 1000. It’s a single ply sheet, but Hutter said that doesn’t make it thin on demand.
“[It’s] a very loyal brand,” Hutter said “Lots of followers enjoy [it’s] usage.”
The plant has reduced the number of products it makes in order to maximize output, but is still struggling to keep up.
“It’s still pretty hand-to-mouth right now,” Hutter said.
The plant has rearranged production to promote social distancing, and is also doing daily temperature checks on its employees. A Kimberly Clark spokesperson could not say whether anyone at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19 by deadline.
Hutter said mill employees are occasionally given free toilet paper as a perk. But, when pressed, he would not elaborate on how flush employee bathrooms are with supply.
“I would say those are probably internal conversations that we would not share,” Hutter said.
‘We could hire twenty people tomorrow’
Before the pandemic, the Nittany Paper facility in Lewiston, Pa. produced toilet paper and paper towels for restaurants, offices and other businesses, as well as for the residential market.
Lately the 150-employee facility has streamlined its product line.
“We are obviously seeing a pretty big shift in the types of paper products we make, said Rob Baron, CEO of Nittany’s parent company, Marcal Paper. “Retail-type products for the bathroom … are up substantially.”
Baron said the Lewiston facility is currently operating at maximum capacity, but could produce more if it could find more employees.
“We could hire twenty people tomorrow if we could,” Baron said. “We’ve been increasing our advertising and trying to do what we can [to hire.]”
Still, Baron said Nittany paper has prioritized safety above production. No employee there has tested positive for COVID-19 so far, he said.
The Nittany facility also processes paper products for Marcal’s paper mill in New Jersey. That mill was devastated by a fire last year. Baron said it still has not entirely recovered.
“The assets that did survive the fire are running 24/7,” Baron said. “[But] it will take decades to rebuild what was lost on [that] night.”
‘Still hard to get’
Some in the toilet paper industry have taken on a newfound celebrity among neighbors during the pandemic.
“I’ve had a couple neighbors yell from their house: ‘Hey, can you get me some?’” Baron said. “And I’m, like, ‘Look, if you really need it, let me know. I’ll leave it in your mailbox as a gift.’”
De Los Rios takes a different approach when his neighbors make a similar ask.
“I tell them to get to their stores and buy it, because it is in the stores,” he said.
That’s not always entirely true — at least in Mehoopany.
“Paper towels and toilet paper are still hard to get,” said Maryellen Condeelis, Mehoopany Township’s secretary and treasurer, and a former longtime employee of the Proctor & Gamble plant.
“It’s frustrating when you have to drive by the plant to go to the store,” she said, “and you can’t get the product.”
Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.