Warsaw

Rolling Issues: Toilet Paper Shortages in Poland

25 Jun 2020
In times of world crisis, or domestic political strife, it seems only reasonable that everyone living through such stressful situations will do everything in their power to, first and foremost, ensure the safety and comfort of their families. If Polish history has taught us anything, it's that Poles have lived through many crises: numerous wars, partitions, and then, Communist rule and Martial Law. They're a hardy bunch.

So how are they faring in modern times with a crisis situation? Actually, quite well, following restrictions introduced by the Polish government to limit the spread of Coronavirus. We've witnessed some top behaviour, with streets emptying due to people self-isolating at home, and standing 2m apart in shop queues (a classic Polish pastime) when out to buy some essentials. Paradoxically, despite the overall well-behaved approach to the ongoing situation, we've also witnessed the irrational panic-buying of... toilet paper.
 


 
Walking like a King with a chain of toilet roll in Communist era Poland.
Photo: NAC
Yes, we've all viewed these scenes around the world, with many commentators trying to rationalise such behaviour. So what gives? In times of crisis, are some people inclined to stock up on toilet paper in preparation for the seemingly impending shitmageddon? Actually, it's down to human psychology: stocking up on anything gives us the impression that we're 'doing something' to combat the situation. There's also an element of maintaining a stock of products we've become accustomed to, all in order to remain comfortable. In short, all this panic-buying is a bit of a coping mechanism.

With toilet paper today disappearing from shop shelves almost faster than you can shout 'nobody panic!', at one point restrictions had to be introduced to limit the quantities purchased per person! Amidst such scenes, many in Poland compared the current runs on toilet paper to the shortages experienced during the communist era, when there were real shortages of everything. But is this a fair comparison? In short: no.

Today, there is definitely no shortage of toilet paper in Poland - and this is where some stats show how buying toilet paper in blind panic is pretty damn silly. In the year 2000, Poland produced 116 thousand tonnes of toilet paper; fast forward to 2018 and the country produced 393 thousand tonnes, while incomplete figures for 2019 show a further increase (source: GUS)! This is way more than the country possibly needs. In fact, Poland is currently the 4th biggest exporter of toilet paper of all the European Union countries. In 2018 alone, it sent 109.7 thousand tonnes of toilet paper abroad (behind France with 115.5, Italy with 128.5 and Germany, in no.1 position, with 221.9 thousand tonnes).

So the fear may seem irrational given some hard facts, but emotion can often get the best of rational thinking, particularly given the precedent of the extreme shortages of the Communist era in Poland - which were experienced by the entire population, and are still within living memory. Thanks to these shortages, even the most basic products - specifically toilet paper - became rare, luxury products. And that's an insult to the word luxury, as the bog roll back then was awful, coming in various unappealing forms: hard and coarse like sandpaper, or thin, weak and practically disintegrating upon use...not very helpful. And when there was no toilet paper at all, good ole newspaper had to suffice. It was really that bad during the Communist era, with the average Pole being able to use only 7 rolls of toilet paper per annum (that's 1 metre of paper per day).
 
PRL toilet paper queue. Photo: NAC.

Today, despite consumer paranoia, the shelves can be re-stocked fairly quickly, but imagine having to stand in a queue for hours as your everyday reality; this is something Poles had to accept for many years. Getting to the end of the queue was rarely a pleasure as the shop shelves were often empty of many worthwhile products, let alone toilet paper. Therefore, if you did manage to get your hands on some rare rolls of paper, you were in luck! People walking around with rolls of toilet paper proudly hung on string around their shoulders became iconic images of the time. Bizarrely, being adorned with such a string of toilet paper was also seen as a bit of a status symbol, where today some showoffs might wear extravagant jewellery, like a gold chain. Quite the absurdity.

Thankfully, those horrid days of shortages and queuing are over. Despite current fears, there is no lack of products in the shops, and with toilet paper, there's no shitstorm coming, so everyone can rest easy that they will always be able to buy any variety they want! With various lovely fragrances, designs and soft textures, you're in a much better situation today than Poland was just over 40 years ago!

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