Will The Delta Variant Cause Another Diaper Shortage In 2021?

Most mothers out there will agree that they've always taken their relationship with disposable diapers for granted. Unless something truly exceptional happens, diapers are always there when you need them, and stores almost always have them in stock — if not in the brand you love, at least in a respectable substitute.

What moms see as one thing is actually the result of several different materials that are pulled together. Its topsheets and backsheets are made with polypropylene and polyethylene; diapers are stuffed with cellulose fluff pulp and superabsorbent polymer which give them the ability to hold as much as 35 grams of pee for every gram of material. These versatile products are then finished with elastics and adhesives to ensure both fit and comfort (via Diaper Answers). If one or more of those items are missing, then diapers simply cannot be made.

The coronavirus pandemic made 2020 an exceptional year because of the impact the disease wrought up and down the global supply chain. COVID-19 didn't just keep us in our homes and sicken American consumers; it also affected raw material production on the other side of the planet. The pandemic even impacted the movers and transporters so that when the materials needed to make everything from spare parts to diapers managed to get on a container vessel and made it into a port, some ships had to wait weeks before they could be unloaded (via Insider).

Diaper prices have sharply increased

Closer to home, the Texas freeze in February shut down chemical plants responsible for making acrylic acid which is also needed to make superabsorbent polymer (via The Wall Street Journal). While weather-related problems eventually sorted themselves out, it created a shortfall which, even in May, producers and acrylic acid distributors were still talking about.

All these factors might have contributed to a surge in diaper prices since the pandemic struck — the WSJ reveals diapers were up nearly 10% as of May 2021, while Bloomberg reports that prices were up by as much as 14% by July. Kimberly-Clark CEO Mike Hsu, whose company makes Huggies, has said that as of May, he didn't expect to see any shortages. "I'm not happy that the supply is so tight right now [but] we're trying to be as productive as possible and also do everything we can to manage the supply equitably," Hsu said. 

But even before the summer, the WSJ reported that supplies were tight, and that baby toiletries including wipes and toys were regularly out of stock, although the publication noted there was no sign of a shortage. We can only hope that it has stayed that way, even with the Delta variant sparking the natural urge to hoard that many of us probably never thought we had.