Four months into the United States’ coronavirus lockdown, going to the grocery store is no longer a frustrating, impossible quest. While the supply chains for meat and toilet paper appear to have rebounded, one item seems to have remained a holy grail: disinfectant wipes. Even still, shoppers and businesses eager to rid any and all surfaces of coronavirus droplets are snatching up canisters of wipes at an unprecedented tempo. Sales for wipes rose by 144 percent from March to May, and they’re still a rare sight on store shelves. Manufacturers insist more wipes are coming and that they’ve been tinkering with their production processes and working overtime to accommodate demand. But they cite several factors preventing them from completing the task—including pockets of increased demand as various parts of the country reopen and reclose, difficulties with the sourcing of some materials, and safety regulations.
“What’s within the control of the companies right now is they’re continuing to operate their production facilities 24/7,” said Brian Sansoni, senior vice president of communication for the American Cleaning Institute, a trade group for cleaning-product manufacturers. “In the past month or so you’ve seen different regions of the U.S. reopening as they move into different phases. Those restaurants, those offices have their employees using more wipes and disinfectants and sanitizers.” The rapid spread of the virus in states like Texas and Florida has also pushed the already-high demand even higher, which has ramifications up and down the supply chain.
Let’s start with the materials. According to Sansoni, restrictions on factories in China made it difficult for American companies to source quaternary ammonium compounds, which are the antimicrobial disinfectant chemicals found in cleaning wipes and sprays, though the shortage has abated somewhat. Sellers of packaging components for all cleaning products—like wipe canisters, hand sanitizer pumps, and spray bottles—are also experiencing strains because manufacturers abruptly increased their orders all at once. Finally, some companies are having trouble getting their hands on enough fabric because the same materials are being used to make personal protective equipment—maybe the only item in even higher demand than wipes these days.
The process for making wipes differs from company to company, but it generally involves cutting up massive rolls of fabric into usable squares, placing them in a container, and then running the containers through a production line that deposits cleaning solution. Companies are now developing a number of different strategies to streamline this process and increase capacity, even with reduced access to materials. The private-label wet-wipes manufacturer Athea Laboratories has been rethinking the way it does packaging, placing its product in a wider variety of canister sizes based on what’s in stock from the packaging supplier in order to yield higher volumes. (Athea produces wipes for retail customers as well as gyms, department stores, and grocery stores.) The company has also stopped using coloring to identify its canisters in some cases. “Some customers will get a colored cap and have their brand be reflected by a certain look of the canister,” said John Patton, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Athea Laboratories. “Now they’re just happy with white, because that’s what we can get.” The manufacturer Rockline Industries has reportedly been placing its wipes in soft packs to get around the canister shortage.
Other companies have been shifting their production lines to focus on their more popular, all-purpose wipes, and some factories are lending out their facilities to help out with larger operations. “Retailers like Safeway or Giant or Target have their own branded [disinfectant wipe] products. Under normal circumstances, those plants aren’t operating 24/7,” said Sansoni. Companies that focus exclusively on cleaning products are now contracting those factories out to ramp up production. Major players like Lysol and Clorox are increasing production as well, and they’ve said their products won’t fully be back in stock until later in July or August.
Because of health and safety regulations, however, there’s only so much a company can do to adjust the product and the manufacturing process. For example, Athea Laboratories has had some trouble finding the right fabric for its wipes. Many wipe fabrics, like polypropylene, are also used in face masks and hospital gowns. According to Patton, some fabric suppliers are more motivated to use their materials to make masks because there are fewer EPA restrictions on them than there are for wipes. Only certain fabrics are EPA-approved for use in disinfectant wipes, which restricts the number of alternative materials that a company can seek out. “I just had a situation where we placed a purchase order for fabric back in May. We found out today that the manufacturer will not fulfill it, and they don’t have plans to fulfill it this year,” Patton said. “We have hundreds of thousands of each product that need to be produced. Now we’re scrambling to try and find suitable alternatives and [determine] whether or not that will fit in their current packaging.” Swapping any component of the product also involves changing the content label, which can add more delays.
The employees of these disinfectant wipe companies themselves have been working overtime, even on weekends, over the course of the pandemic. Athea Laboratories plans on adding more shifts. Luckily for them, though, getting access to supplies for cleaning workstations hasn’t been as much of a challenge as it has been for other companies because Athea makes the products itself. There’s nowhere cleaner, in theory, than a cleaning-product factory.
The cleaning-supplies industry is anticipating heavy demand for a while into the future, so wipe companies are trying to figuring out ways to more permanently increase their factories’ capacities. “I still think cleaning and hygiene practices will be front and center for a lot of folks. This has been so traumatic on so many levels, so I think we’ll see continuing demand,” Sansoni said, who added that he expects the potential arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine to eventually dampen demand. Athea Laboratories is currently looking into purchasing equipment for another production line to fill wipe containers with cleaning solution. However, sourcing even that equipment is a struggle, so the company won’t likely see the benefits of the addition until March of next year. Unfortunately, they’re pretty sure Americans’ desire for their product will still be high.