Stretching along the Fraser River in New Westminster, B.C., Kruger Products’ mill was operating at near full capacity before the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Now, its two paper machines and nine converting units are running full tilt to try and meet the increased demand for its signature item — Purex 2-Ply toilet paper.
“This is a product that people typically take for granted,” Kruger general manager Mark Evans told Global News.
“Never have we had this kind of attention for what we actually make, not in my career at least.”
The plant’s more than 400 employees are working around the clock to turn kraft pulp into the premium paper that’s behind one of the hottest commodities in North America.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Darren McCrabb, president of Unifor Canada Local 456, which represents Kruger’s pulp and paper workers.
He says his jaw dropped when he heard the first news report about the scarcity of toilet paper.
“It was a surprise to everyone,” McCrabb told Global News.
It means Kruger’s signature product is on a roll.
As the largest manufacturer of tissue products in Canada and Western Canada’s only tissue producer, Kruger has drained its inventory and narrowed its product mix to ramp up production in order to satisfy the immediate surge in demand.
“We saw in the month of March – something like 70, 75 per cent higher than the month of February,” said Evans.
According to Statistics Canada, bathroom tissue sales began to spike significantly in the first week of March, shortly after the federal health minister advised Canadians to be prepared with a week’s worth of supplies.
At the peak of the apparent panic buying, toilet paper purchases for the week ending March 14 increased by 241 per cent, relative to the 2019 average.
Despite reassurances from government and retail industry experts that the supply chain is flush, the consumer rush for toilet paper continues to leave store shelves wiped out.
“Consumption can’t go up that much,” said Evans, who blames stockpiling for the perceived shortages.
“Really a lot of it is sitting in people’s cupboards right now, being afraid of running out.”
Evans says consumers don’t need to be afraid. The company’s B.C. facility is one of seven Kruger manufacturing plants across North America, and it can pump out millions of cases of bathroom tissue.
Kruger provides Canadians with one-third of their bathroom tissue and the New Westminster mill ships toilet paper from Victoria to Winnipeg, supplying about 40 per cent of Western Canada’s volume.
B.C. is the largest market for the mill, which rolls out 58,000 metric tonnes of tissue every year.
On a socially-distanced production floor sanitized by regular COVID-19 cleaning regimens, the union says pandemic production is boosting worker morale.
“It’s kind of a bright light for them to come into work, knowing that they’re producing something that’s this highly in demand and sought after,” said McCrabb.
With more people working from home, Kruger is seeing a shift from the away from commercial tissue products used by restaurants, hotels, and education facilities to products used in homes.
While its assembly line is flush for now, Kruger is watching to see how the post-pandemic market will play out for its two-ply bestsellers.
“We’re not clear on what will be the final split between away from home and at-home, at-home is always bigger,” Evans told Global News.
“Then will there be a lull as people realize they’re sitting on a year’s worth of toilet paper in their pantry?”
Until then, the company’s workers say they are doing what they can to ensure Canadians can get their hands on their newly popular items.
“Hopefully everything will be there when you need it,” said McCrabb.
Kruger Products also assures the public its production line is nowhere near the end of the roll.
“There’s plenty of toilet paper to go around, you don’t need to hoard it,” said Evans.
“We’re making it 24/7. It’ll be there for you.”