Will Brexit wipe out the UK’s toilet paper supplies?

As the UK’s exit from the European Union nears, the imminent scenario of the British people running out of essentials, such as toilet paper, becomes a very real – and frightening – proposition.

In March 2019, Buckingham Palace received a rather unusual delivery. Over 1,000 luxury toilet rolls addressed to “Her Majesty” arrived at the gates, much to the surprise of royal staff, courtesy of a German toilet paper company.

Unfortunately, the Queen never got to set eyes on the surprise gift, as it was rejected as a possible security threat and donated to a local school instead. However, the delivery drew attention to an important issue that Hakle was attempting to highlight – the potential for toilet paper shortages in the event of a No Deal Brexit.

Only 24 hours of supply

The UK is Europe’s largest importer of toilet paper and it is thought that supply levels are only enough to last a single day in the event of a shortage. Both the raw material pulp and the tissue paper ‘jumbo rolls’ – which resemble toilet rolls three metres long and two metres wide, and which producers convert into the final product – are almost entirely imported.

“Since around 2012 the UK has only made around 25 per cent of our own paper,” says Khurram Iqbal, managing director of British firm Nova Tissue. If the UK exits the EU with no deal, extra customs checks at ports will lead to delays on pulp and jumbo rolls entering the country. “It’s very difficult to export the finished product out because it’s so light and low value that it’s not really cost-effective. You don’t see much Chinese made toilet paper on supermarket shelves. Toilet paper and kitchen roll tend to be made locally.”

There are 1,467 companies in the UK either producing paper or converting it further into other formats, and together they employ 66,000 people. According to Iqbal, these are the ones who will be most affected by any port delays. “The pulp will have already left the producers, so the impact of any shortage is going to be felt in the UK rather than anywhere else,” he says. “I don’t want to say you would definitely see people laid off, but you would see a severe downturn in business until people’s contingencies could kick in.”

Is there a plan B?

One obvious solution would be for producers to stockpile, but Iqbal explains that this is never going to be cost-effective because paper is a low-cost bulky item. “You could have whole warehouses filled up and it would cost an absolute arm and a leg,” he says.

“We know that the bigger companies out there are definitely stockpiling, but there’s a limit because nobody has huge capacities available. Small-medium companies like us are already running at full capacity so our ability to stockpile is really limited,” he adds.

Another solution may be to divert supplies through other ports, such as Hull and Liverpool, as the majority of paper currently arrives through Calais. But given that customs checks will impact every single port, this is not a perfect solution.

The uncertainty continues

In addition to delays, a shortage could potentially be worsened by customers panic buying. There has been significant media coverage of possible shortages of food and essentials, and many news organisations have interviewed members of the public who have begun stockpiling. There are also a number of Facebook pages dedicated to helping people prepare for a No Deal Brexit, and toilet paper is recommended as an item to stock up on. However, there is very little data available to indicate when or even whether this will intensify enough for shops to experience shortages.

“Sales have been buoyant and toilet paper is a consistently sold product,” says Iqbal. “But, for example, if I see 20 percent extra sales in the run-up to a Brexit deadline, then I have no idea whether that’s 20 percent less for somebody else or whether it’s a panic buy.”

Overall, the main issue currently facing businesses is how to deal with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. “It’s very difficult to have a clear strategy in place when there’s so much unknown,” concludes Iqbal. “We don’t know if there will be an increase in tariffs or what it would be, what the customs procedures will be or what the associated costs of these will be.“People are really fed up.”


Text: Jessica Batemen 

Image: by Stux on Pixabay


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