When Marc Cooper first acquired a building on the outskirts of Bangor last summer with the goal of converting raw tissue paper into finished goods, he didn’t foresee the global pandemic that would flare up some eight months later — let alone the effect it would have on his business.
With the confirmed arrival of the coronavirus in Maine, panicked shoppers have been stripping toilet paper from the shelves of their local supermarkets as soon as it can arrive.
Cooper’s business, TissuePlus, only started making toilet paper in the last week, but he now has two shifts of workers cranking out rolls of it from early in the morning to past midnight. He then sells the finished goods at a wholesale price to regional distributors and suppliers.
“We just literally started our first line once all this craziness started,” said Cooper, whose business was originally called Soft Touch Tissue & Paper when it first opened last summer. “We’re trying to take advantage of the opportunity and help provide a needed product.”
The plant on Hildreth Street also makes napkins and paper towels from tissue paper that has been manufactured at St. Croix Tissue in Baileyville and other plants in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
It’s not clear whether U.S. manufacturers are significantly boosting their production of toilet and tissue paper to make up for the rolls that have been vanishing from the shelves as Americans prepare for a quarantine or fret that the product won’t be available later. Generally, manufacturers are trying to meet the new bump in demand without being stuck with a glut of product when it retreats, according to the New York Times.
This week, a spokesman at St. Croix Tissue, Scott Beal, said the facility usually produces about 10,000 tons per month of tissue paper and that it is not planning to expand its production.
Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, recently said that he expects the shortages of products at supermarkets to be temporary and to go away in the coming days or weeks.
As TissuePlus continues to scale up its production, it is still trying to hire more staff, train them and work out the kinks in its operations, according to Cooper. “Right now, we’re not running at optimal efficiency,” he said. “Some of the increase will come from just being more efficient.”
The need for toilet paper in Greater Bangor was clear at his plant on Tuesday afternoon. Inside, workers moved long rolls of tissue paper through a machine that chopped them up into smaller sizes and wrapped them so they could be placed into a cardboard box.
Rindy Fogler, Bangor’s manager of community services, stopped by the plant after learning that a local homeless shelter — which she didn’t identify — was going to run out of toilet paper by the end of the day.
If the shelter couldn’t find any rolls, it was considering using napkins as toilet paper, according to Fogler, who added that the city’s wastewater treatment staff are concerned that people will overload the sewage system with sanitary products that should be thrown away, not flushed.
But after Fogler asked whether Cooper would be willing to donate some toilet paper, he provided at least 150 rolls. “Fortunately, Marc was more than willing to help,” she said. “It was not a situation where they could be without toilet paper.”
Another visitor to TissuePlus was Craig Paradis, the owner of three Shop ‘n Save grocery stores in Brewer, Fort Kent and Madawaska.
He came to the Bangor plant to acquire 80 boxes of two-ply toilet paper, each containing 96 rolls. Workers hauled the boxes out of the plant on forklifts and helped load them into a covered trailer that Paradis pulled with his truck.
“There is a lot of shortage,” said Paradis, who has struggled to restock his shelves with a number of goods. “It’s awful nice to have them here today.”
Paradis initially asked if he could return for another load later in the day, but reconsidered after learning he’d have to go on a waiting list.
BDN writer Nick Sambides Jr. contributed to this report.