The Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020

I know everyone is preoccupied (and rightly so) with the current COVID-19 pandemic, but I have had another global crisis on my mind these last few weeks–the apparent worldwide toilet paper shortage.  The toilet paper situation has intrigued me because, here in Ecuador, we have plenty of toilet paper. The shelves are completely stocked, and there is no evidence of the hoarding that has been reported in countries such as the USA, UK, Australia, and Western Europe in general.  So as I’ve talked to friends and family “back home” and heard their woes of having to scavenge for toilet paper, I was perplexed by why the so called “Developed World” was having such a shortage, while here in the Global South (e.g. “Developing World”), we are well stocked and wiping away!  

Colombia

After having this dichotomy nag at me for several weeks, I did a bit of googling this morning which resulted in a Eureka! moment. Here’s what I learned:  it’s all about the supply chain. The toilet paper industry is not homogenous–it is split into two distinct markets: commercial and consumer. The commercial market toilet paper is a completely different product than the consumer rolls that most Americans use in their households. 

Commercial toilet paper, typically sold in large rolls that are delivered on pallets, are usually made from lower quality, recycled paper. The way that it is produced and distributed is so different from consumer paper, that most toilet paper manufacturers only produce commercial OR consumer–not both.  

Consumer paper on the other hand, is usually made from virgin fiber, are thicker, softer, and come on conveniently small rolls, sold in packages of 8 or 12.  I’m talking about your typical Charmin or Quilted Northern that you would buy at your supermarket.  

So, why is the distinction between consumer and commercial so important in understanding the current shortage of toilet paper?  Well, currently, about 75% of the population in affected countries are staying at home under shelter in place or quarantine orders.  According to Georgia-Pacific, the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual in their homes while they are staying home from work/school.  Normally, people go to work or school or restaurants throughout most of the day and use commercial paper in those institutions. Now, however, everyone is at home boosting the demand of consumer paper.  And that, my friends, explains the shortage in the USA etc. There might be some hoarding going on as well, but a lot of the shortage goes back to supply and demand and the logistics of the industry.  

Now, the second part of my Eureka! moment brings us to the dichotomy of the shortages in more developed countries and the business-as-usual plethora here in Ecuador.  In Ecuador, as in most of the Global South, everyone has to bring their own toilet paper to use in most places outside of their home. Here, you don’t leave the house without a hearty wad of TP from your own consumer supply because restrooms in offices, restaurants, schools, parks, etc. do not supply free toilet paper.  We take it for granted in the States that if you walk into a public restroom or the bathroom in your office that it will be stocked with a roll of (usually) commercial toilet paper. Down here, that is a luxury we do not have. Therefore, the demand for consumer toilet paper has not drastically increased due to the entire population being in lockdown in their homes, because we always had to supply 24 hours/day’s worth of toilet paper for ourselves anyway–regardless of where we were doing our business.  Our supply and demand remains in equilibrium.  

This may seem insignificant to some people, but I find it fascinating how this global crisis is transforming our world and teaching us about the nuts and bolts of how our society and economy operates.  It is terrifying and devastating, but it is also so interesting to learn about things that we have taken for granted and never given thought to, e.g. toilet paper supply chains and demand disparities across cultures.  So much is changing in our world and it is happening so fast. Even the ripple effects feel like tsunamis; so I hope you are all hanging in there, that you are safe, healthy, and have plenty of toilet paper.  

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Guatemala, Brought to you by Human Nature

I first traveled to Guatemala 14 years ago as a teenager with my parents on a trip to provide dental services to rural communities.  It was my first experience traveling in the developing world, and it was…rough. It was a no frills service trip fueled by beans, tortillas, and water we sucked out of plastic bags.  The imagery that has stuck with me from that trip is of dust, blood, and vomit–not the type of sensory experience most people would intentionally seek out. Seeing the life of travels I have pursued since that trip, it must have made a pretty big impression on me, but my memory of Guatemala has always been a bit cringeworthy.  Needless to say, my excitement over the opportunity to return to Guatemala this past November was flavored with a good dose of apprehension … bordering on reluctance.  

But return I did, and wow!  I was blown away. I spent 5 days visiting with a new community that GATA is partnering with in the village of Tzununá  on the shore of Lake Atitlán. It was spectacular. It was so different from my first experience in Guatemala and so far above any expectations that I had.  I’m excited to be able to share this special place with you and to offer it as a GATA destination! Here’s a little more about the “new” Guatemala…

First of all, it is breathtakingly beautiful.  I arrived at Lake Atitlán at night, taking a boat from Panajachel to the small village of Tzununá in the dark.  Upon arriving at the dock of Tzununá, I took a tuk tuk up the mountain to where I was staying, the Bambu Guesthouse.  It is always both disorienting and a little exciting arriving somewhere new at night, because you don’t really know what you’re going to wake up to.  Well, I woke up to a jaw dropping view of the sun dazzling on the blue waters of Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes, and framed by lush green flora, with a crisp, clear, cloudless blue sky overhead.  I have been a lot of beautiful places and seen a lot of things in this world, and there are not many landscapes that I classify in this upper echelon of “wow-worthiness” in which I would categorize the spectacle of Lake Atitlán as seen from Tzununá.  

My initial impression was only enhanced by the setting of the Bambu Guesthouse.  A beautifully crafted 3 story eco lodge built into the mountainside, the Bambu is a zero waste facility serving farm to table organic food that has balconies with hammocks in every room, an open air dining area with a million dollar view, and large open spaces for yoga or group activities.  Sparkling clean, and beautifully designed, the Guesthouse is a gem in and of itself.  

After breakfast, I walked farther up the mountain to meet Shad, founder of Atitlán Organics, and tour the permaculture farm he has run for the past 10 years.  Atitlán Organics is a super cool organization with really interesting initiatives in permaculture and sustainable agriculture. Shad’s team of local Guatemalans is an excellent educational resource, and we are very excited to offer this experiential education opportunities to our students.  I also met with the leaders of the Tzununá Youth Organization, a group of 17-27 year olds who have taken the initiative to organize themselves and improve their community. The enthusiasm and dedication of the group leaders was inspiring and just chatting with them and touring the area with them got me revved up and ready to get to work supporting their projects, which include creating gardens for families to address food scarcity; working on water treatment, waste removal, and basic sanitation; and renovating homes for the poorest members of the community.  I can’t wait to lend GATA forces to support their mission!  

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by my visit to Guatemala.  It was not at all how I remembered it, and I was blown away by its beauty, culture, and educational value.  The food was outstanding, the people were welcoming and kind–even though many of the locals only speak their native Mayan languages, never having learned Spanish.  That element alone gave the trip an extra “cool” factor. I felt very safe, with reliable transportation and clean accommodation. It was so different and so much better than what I (and I think most people) expected, and I am very excited that we are now offering it as a GATA destination.   There is so much potential for learning and growth, and I am eager and energized to be working with the Tzununá Youth Organization that is already doing so much to support and improve their own community.  

Guatemala, Brought to you by GATAStay tuned for more information about our Guatemala itineraries and opportunities!  

Cuba Debunked

Since President Trump took office in 2017, many North Americans have been under the impression that they are no longer able to visit Cuba.  This is not true. People from the United States can indeed safely and legally travel to Cuba. While American Cruise ships no longer make port in Cuba and trade is restricted, travel is not only possible it is fairly easy!  Here’s what you need to know: 

The most important part of planning a trip to Cuba is knowing that you will need a visa.  Luckily, the Cuban visa process is actually easier than most. There are a multitude of companies that you can pay to have a blank visa mailed to you, or some airlines offer the visa as part of the flight.  The visa costs $50. An expedited shipping service may cost up to $35 extra. When applying for the visa, if working with a third party company, simply state your reason for travel as “In support of the Cuban People”.  You will receive a blank quarter-page document in the mail–be aware: this blank slip of paper is your visa and you need it in order to enter Cuba. You fill in the document with your own information–Name, DOB, Passport Number, dates of travel.  Voilà, you have your visa! 

The second thing you will need in order to travel to Cuba is mandatory health insurance.  This is even easier than the visa because you don’t need to plan ahead at all–they sell it at the airport upon arrival!  You simply go to the booth in the airport upon arrival, tell them how long you will be in Cuba, and they sell you the standard government health insurance for about $3/day.  All set!  

Lastly, you need a flight (obviously).  Despite what you may have heard, there are flights from the United States to Cuba every day.  It’s not unheard of to get a flight from Florida to Havana for less than $200! Last week it was announced that US airlines will no longer be operating flights to several Cuban cities–but all flights are continuing as normal to Havana.  

So that’s all it takes–an easy to obtain visa for $50, health insurance that you can buy upon arrival, and a flight!  Next stop, Havana!