Why COVID-19 Is Clogging Your Toilet — and What You Can Do about It

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Image by Anna Shvets, courtesy of Unsplash

If you feel like your toilet is doing a crappy job during the COVID-19 pandemic, you are not alone. In the past few weeks, lots of other Americans are also fighting with their toilets — as the toilets simply refuse to do their jobs. But your toilet doesn’t have anything against you. You’re just overworking it.

The Big Shift in Defecation. A direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is that during this national period of staying at home, very few people are doing their business at their usual places of business. If you are not eliminating waste at work, then, where else are you going to do so? I mean, shit happens. And this means a greater load on your home toilet, or a bigger load in your home toilet — however you prefer to put it. Of course, no one is conducting door to door surveys on toilet use. But you don’t need a survey to tell you that in the early days of the U.S. COVID-19 crisis, there was a massive run on toilet paper. Throughout the month of March, the toilet paper aisle in my local grocery looked like the Grinch had just been there.

The COVID-19 lockdown also helps explain why grocery stores have had such a hard time keeping up with consumer demand for the home variety of toilet paper. Prior to the COVID lockdown, more than half of all the toilet paper used in the United States was used at work — well, there and in other public places such as schools, restaurants, and theaters. All this industrial style toilet paper is now sitting in bathrooms in mostly empty buildings. And companies like Charmin and Northern just can’t compensate for that big shift in the kind of toilet paper America is using.

The Psychology of Waste. Ironically enough, people also tend to use more of something when they have more of it. So, if you are one of the lucky people who has plenty of toilet paper, you are probably using more of it per visit to your toilet than you would be if you were down to your last few rolls. Supermarkets, restaurants, and food manufacturers have long known about this rule — which is why they push larger sizes and quantities on us.

The Psychology of Being at Home. Many people also eat more when they are at home than when they are at work. After all, your home kitchen is much better stocked than your office kitchen. And your coffee maker and stovetop actually work — without setting off any smoke alarms. Further, research shows that when people can see food — which is truer at home than at work — they eat more of it. More eating means more volume for your toilet.

Are U.S. Toilets Really Clogged? To see if my problem with my own chronically clogged toilet is unique — or if it has become a real phenomenon across the United States — I turned to one of my favorite research tools. This is Google Trends, a tool that provides day-by-day and week-by-week data on what Americans are searching for on the internet. The recent week-by-week volume of Google searches for both “toilet paper” and “plungers” appears below.

U.S. Google searches for both “toilet paper” and “plunger” increased during the recent COIVD-19 pandemic
U.S. Google searches for both “toilet paper” and “plunger” increased during the recent COIVD-19 pandemic

You can see that, in the past 10 weeks, things looked very much like I expected. Once the COVID-19 pandemic began getting attention in the United States, people began Googling for places to find both toilet paper and plungers. The only mild curiosity in the data is why the search for plungers showed a bump upwards a week ahead of the bump upwards in searches for toilet paper. One possible reason is that the internet may have only become a big place to search for toilet paper once all the toilet paper had disappeared from grocery store shelves. The Google search volume for toilet paper has also dropped more noticeably in the past couple of weeks than has the search volume for plungers. This may reflect the fact that the need for plungers will continue to grow over a longer period than the need for toilet paper itself. Thankfully, not everyone has a toilet that is as easily overtaxed as mine. And maybe my local grocery will have some toilet paper to sell the next time I get up the nerve to go grocery shopping.

So, let’s assume that you are that proverbial creek where no one has a paddle. You’re short on toilet paper and you have a toilet that just can’t handle everything your family is throwing at it. What can you do? The toilet paper shortage is probably the easier of the two problems. Recent reports suggest that the toilet paper shortage may soon be resolved. For one thing, demand for toilet paper seems to be dropping a bit now that many people have hoarded such a shitload of it.

But getting all the toilet paper you want isn’t going to unclog your overworked home toilet. Unless you have plumbers in your family (as I do), you may not have what it takes to unclog the nether regions of your toilet’s drain. But you probably can do what I routinely do these days. First, if you know how to do so, increase the amount of water in your toilet tank a little — to get bigger flushes. Second, flush twice when need be. That’s one flush for the fecal matter, and a separate flush for the toilet paper. That’s assuming you can find some toilet paper, of course. If you’re about to run out, as I am, it can’t hurt to try Googling for it.

Brett is a social psychologist at Montgomery College, MD. Brett studies health, gender, culture, religion, identity, and stereotypes.

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