Don't blame manufacturers for that empty toilet paper shelf at the grocery store. Plants like Georgia-Pacific just north of Baton Rouge are running at full tilt — even finding ways to churn out more of what's become a hot commodity in a stay-at-home world.

"People are requesting twice as much; we are making as much as we can," said Patty Prats, spokeswoman at Georgia-Pacific's Port Hudson plant near Zachary.

The toilet paper and paper towel plant is working round-the-clock to meet customer demand as shoppers have cleared store shelves amid the coronavirus pandemic, she said.

The plant is at 120% of its normal capacity for toilet paper. It always operates round-the-clock, so its 350 workers can't put in longer shifts to increase production; rather the company has maximized the number of deliveries it can send out of the facility to exceed its normal output.

The plant doesn't disclose production numbers of the Angel Soft and Quilted Northern brands made there, but the mill is able to produce 40,000 rolls of toilet paper each hour. So in a 24-hour day, it could produce 960,000 toilet paper rolls or 160,000 packs of six. 

As Americans were ordered to stay home and bathroom visits shifted away from work and school, the demand for toilet paper skyrocketed as people stocked their homes.

Toilet paper sales across the nation jumped about 213% during the week ending March 14, compared to the same time frame last year, according to market research firm Nielsen.

Georgia-Pacific estimates the average U.S. household of 2.6 people uses 409 regular toilet paper rolls each year, based on information from market research company IRI and the U.S. Census Bureau. The company estimated that staying home would increase usage by 140%.

The company encourages consumers to only buy toilet tissue they need and not to build stockpiles that put a strain on supplies.

The Port Hudson facility is among 11 factories across the U.S. manufacturing toilet paper, all of which are 24-hour operations and employ 7,500 people. The local mill is part of a national supply chain under contract with retail customers. Since most of the toilet paper sold across the country is manufactured in North America, that makes restocking easier for retailers compared to other products made overseas that are facing delays.

Only essential personnel are physically working at the Port Hudson mill. The company also has enforced social distancing policies and is minimizing contact between workers. A statewide stay-at-home order has shut down nonessential businesses, but manufactures are exempt from the order. Employees at Georgia-Pacific are deemed essential, but those who can are working remotely from home, the company said.

"This is really part of our effort to protect employees operating the facility and to do everything we can to prevent the introduction of the virus into the facility," the company said.

Some concerns at the mill include a potential disruption in the supply chain and ensuring workers who feel sick stay home. 

"We can't produce if we don't get the pulp," Prats said. "Right now everything is flowing but we just don't know when things will change; we are trying to operate as normally as we can." 

Georgia-Pacific receives pulp from mills from other company-owned locations and external suppliers. 

The company has already cross-trained workers on machines as one way to avoid a business disruption.

The Port Hudson plant hasn't needed to hire more workers or rehire any of those laid off last year, when it shut down a separate office paper production division that included its pulp mill and woodyard.

"While there are a few job availabilities posted, the facility is currently not actively looking to hire employees at the moment, but that could change at any time," the company said.

Georgia-Pacific posted jobs for an automation technician, senior financial analyst and manager of analysis for consumer products in recent weeks at the Zachary facility.


Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.