What could be more reassuring in the midst of the coronavirus-fuelled loo-roll shortage than to visit a toilet tissue mill on the outskirts of Manchester and marvel at the mountains of soft white toilet paper on display?
They are everywhere — bobbing down the production lines in myriad neat, white rows, before being stacked, bagged and crammed into six, 12 and 32 packs, and piled on a seemingly endless line of wooden pallets ready for dispatch.
Essity is the UK’s biggest loo-roll manufacturer, producing Cushelle, Velvet and own-brand toilet tissue for most major retailers. Indeed, it supplies more than 30 per cent of all our loo paper requirements. Every day, including Christmas, Easter and bank holidays, its six mills churn out approximately 4.7million rolls.
The Daily Mail’s Jane Fryer paid a visit to the Essity toilet roll factory in Manchester on Thursday to find out more about the UK’s largest toilet roll producer, behind her are enough parent rolls of paper to make a million rolls
Another 84million are sitting nearby in giant warehouses, ready to be shipped and, right now, just like Andrex, they are supplying more than ever before.
Which is very encouraging all round. Because while we Brits have always been surprisingly particular (and, lets face it, a little peculiar) about loo paper, lately things have got rather out of hand.
Some people have started bulk buying and hoarding. Fearful they’ll be caught short (sorry) in the midst of the Covid-19 epidemic, they are filling their trolleys with more than anyone could ever possibly need for just one bottom.
Faced with empty supermarket shelves, others are reselling it on eBay, nicking it from pubs, churches, hospitals and, increasingly, each other.
Grown women have been spotted tussling in supermarket aisles over the last six-pack of luxury, quilted two-ply, and hotels have been forced to put up signs begging guests not to nab the toilet tissue.
After 17 rolls went missing in one day, owners of the Castle Hotel in Taunton, Somerset, are apparently considering rationing it.
The issue has made such an impact on the public consciousness that one wag, who came across a dirty white commercial vehicle, used his finger to daub the words: ‘No toilet rolls kept in this van overnight.’
Essity in Manchester is responsible for producing 30% of the UK’s toilet rolls, every day it churns out 4.7million rolls from its six mills
Jane Fryer spoke to experienced staff at the toilet paper mill on Thursday, their conversations ranging from coronavirus panic buying to the great scrunch or fold debate
With shelves alarmingly empty, some commentators have even started describing loo roll as the new hard currency, more sought after than gold in some parts. Though if you believe that…
Naturally, Facebook, Twitter and Mumsnet are all awash with tips of where to find it, when stock is next due in and how to secure it. Goodness only knows what would happen if any of the hoarders were let loose in this toilet-tissue Mecca that is Essity’s Trafford Mill. Though they would certainly get a very bewildered reception.
Because staff here cannot understand why anyone would panic hoard loo rolls — and not just because they all get a generous staff allowance of the company’s top-of-the-range luxury Cushelle, with Kenny the Koala imprinted in the super soft, air-dried paper. ‘We’ve got loads and loads and loads of loo rolls,’ says operations manager, Allan Hughes, who has worked here for 25 years. ‘We won’t run out. We can’t run out.’
Gareth Lucy, Essity’s communications director, insists the reason supermarket shelves are empty is panic-buying, not supply.
‘Yes, we’re supplying more than usual,’ he says. (Sales of Cushelle alone are up 18 per cent on last year.) ‘But we are really well geared up for it. We have a massive stockpile. We’re used to fluctuations like this and we’re ready.’
Used by just over 99 per cent of the population (goodness knows what the rest use), loo roll has long been something we Brits feel strongly about, whether we’re talking brand, thickness, quilted or non-quilted, embossed, aloe-drenched, advertised by puppies (Andrex), stamped with koalas (Cushelle), perfumed, pink or peach-coloured. (While Simon Cowell is said to favour a special black loo roll made in Portugal, coloured loo roll — once the perfect complement to your bathroom suite — is now generally considered the height of naff and few mills produce it.)
Jane Fryer went inside the Manchester toilet roll mill to find out how it is made and gauge how prepared it is for panic buying up and down the country
Despite being neither edible nor drinkable, it is also one of the first things people stockpile in an emergency. Goodness only knows why. Particularly now, with gastric problems right at the very bottom of the list of Covid-19 possible symptoms — after coughs, fevers, aches and breathlessness.
Perhaps it’s about feeling in control in the face of uncertainty. Or maybe because, on average, we all spend around three years of our lives sitting on the loo and want to make sure we enjoy it.
About a year ago, the chief executive of Morrisons noted that customers had begun panic buying toilet tissue. At that time consumers were concerned about their supply chain in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
A survey at the time revealed that seven per cent of Brits were stockpiling and then, as now, Essity started dipping into its vast warehouse stock to satisfy demand. Over the years, loo roll has also sparked endless, often heated, discussions about how it should be best used.
For starters, there is presentation on the lavatory wall. The seemingly innocent issue of whether the end should flap forwards over the roll, or hang behind and below, has driven some families almost to blows.
Allan Hughes, for one, becomes extremely animated when the subject pops up.
‘Underneath is no good. No good at all. I have to change it before I settle down,’ he says.
Essity has six mills producing household names including Cushelle and Velvet, as well as own-brand products sold in supermarkets up and down the country
‘Even in someone else’s house. It’s just wrong.’
For the record, I’m with Allan on this. But not, as it turns out, on folding as opposed to scrunching.
Entire research projects — yes, really — and extremely animated Mumsnet debates have been conducted on how we ‘gather’ our loo roll from the dispenser.
So some people scrunch — grab a load of loo roll and ball it up in readiness, whereas others neatly fold. Most Brits (68 per cent) are folders. More men than women are folders. Older people are more likely to fold. Americans tend to scrunch. But their loos — with much wider pipes — can take the added volume and wodge created.
They can also accommodate much stronger, sturdier loo roll than ours. (Here in the UK, the main loo roll industry body sets some of the world’s strictest specifications on the flushability of loo roll, necessitating a constant balancing act between strength and durability.)
Folders tend to look down on scrunchers (‘It’s just plain grubby,’ says one friend accusingly) and consider them unhygienic. I conducted my own survey and all my extended family, bar one, are folders, other than the children who presumably don’t know any better.
Which means we should tally with the national average of using 57 sheets of loo paper each every day, or 100 rolls a year.
While substitutes had been used for centuries — everything from wool, lace, leaves, moss, ferns, fruit skins, corncobs, newspapers and, in Ancient Rome, a sponge on a stick that was then placed in a bucket of vinegar — the first modern, commercially available toilet paper is thought to have been invented by Joseph Gayetty in the U.S. in 1857.
Essity is no stranger to panic buying. Communications director Gareth Lucy said: ‘We have a massive stockpile. We’re used to fluctuations like this and we’re ready.’
Gayetty’s Medicated Paper was sold in packages of flat sheets, watermarked with his name, soaked in aloe and advertised as: ‘The greatest necessity of the age! Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the water-closet.’
But loo paper took a lot of refinement. It was another 30 years before it made it onto a roll and not until the 1930s that the Northern Tissue company was advertising its ‘splinter-free’ version. Who can forget the dreaded Izal medicated paper used in institutions and public loos in the 1960s and 1970s which resembled scratchy greaseproof paper and seemed to focus more on exfoliation than absorption?
Over recent years, our paper has gone from utility to luxury, with quilted, padded and super-soft brands leading the market.
Today, quality is determined by the number of plies (stacked sheets), coarseness and durability.
Institutional toilet paper — usually the lowest grade of paper — is coarse, sometimes contains small amounts of embedded unbleached and unpulped paper, and can have what, in the industry, they call poor ‘finger-breakthrough’ resistance.
Most papers have had the water pressed out of them. Cushelle is air-dried which, according to Darren Croft — head of quality control on the Cushelle line here at Essity — gives it that extra fluffy softness that even Andrex doesn’t have.
And it must be working, because in the past year, over 224 million rolls were sold.
Darren blanches at the prospect of using anything else. ‘Oh my God, you can tell the difference. You notice immediately,’ he says. ‘I even take a couple of rolls on holiday with me now.’
Gareth Lucy feels the same way: ‘It’s just very nice on the bum,’ he says.
The sprawling factory floor is a roar of noise as it churns out millions of rolls a day. The paper is made from wood pulp imported from offcuts of hard wood from Scandinavia and soft wood from South America
It’s less nice on the ears. It turns out that the manufacture of loo roll is a rather magnificent and incredibly noisy process.
Here, on the factory floor, with my ears plugged against the roar of machinery and my nose full of the sweet smell of pulp, I watch them make the paper themselves from wood pulp imported from offcuts of hard wood from Scandinavia and soft wood (eucalyptus) from South America. (For every tree it uses, the Scandinavian-owned company plants two more.)
They squash and press, and roll and air dry it into vast mother rolls (which now in our gender-neutral world are called ‘parent rolls’), each of which weighs 1.2 tonnes and produces 10,000 normal loo rolls, that are cut using vast spinning log saws.
But while the rolls are flying out of the door onto lorries at record rates, Gareth insists there really is plenty to go round.
‘We’re making the product — we couldn’t be making more,’ he says. ‘The stock is there, so please don’t panic and please don’t stockpile.’
And, of course, he’s absolutely right and supremely sensible.
But when, an hour later, I am offered a couple of 32 packs of Cushelle as a going-home present, I grab them immediately — even though I’ll have to lug them more than 200 miles home on the train and Tube — and stash them proudly in my cellar the minute I get in.