POCATELLO — Last spring it was toilet paper. Now, bottled water seems to be the staple item that retailers can't keep stocked on their shelves.
There were no gallon jugs of water at the Benton Street Albertsons on Thursday night. On Friday afternoon, the water section at the Ridley's Family Market on Main Street was picked over; Nel's Bi-Lo Market, 333 N. 15th Ave., had some bottled water in stock but posted a sign limiting customers to two cases. There are also national media reports about bottled water shortages at Costco locations.
Area retailers say pandemic-related water hoarding isn't the problem. Rather, there's a widespread shortage of the resin used to make the plastic containers.
Sherece Later, assistant manager at Ridley's, started having trouble keeping bottled water stocked about a month ago.
"The shortage we're having is a hard time getting plastic," Later said. "We have a hard time getting gallons and 24 packs. Water for the time being is just the problem we're having."
Barry Dutton, owner and president of Bi-Lo, began noticing sporadic problems with sourcing bottled water about six weeks ago. Throughout this month, however, he's been consistently shorted in his water orders. For example, he didn't get any water in his Thursday delivery.
"I'm maybe getting 15 percent of what I order," Dutton said. "I get a few (bottles of water) trickle in, but as soon as we get them they go."
Dutton said Coke, which bottles Dasani water and Pepsi, which sells Aquavista, are both having a tough time getting enough bottles.
Dutton believes labor shortages, rising fuel prices and other factors have contributed to across-the-board product shortages. His shelves are also under-stocked of beverages bottled in glass and cans, for example.
"If you're used to ordering five cases of something, you might only get a case at a time now," Dutton said.
Bottled water, however, which always enjoys strong sales during the hot summer months, is the only product he's currently rationing.
For some other products, Dutton said suppliers have limited the selection of brands they offer.
"Suppliers who offer six different kinds of toilet paper now may only have two," Dutton said.
Dave Hall, general manager of Culligan in Pocatello, said he's had the usual seasonal increase in water sales. The prices he pays for plastic, however, have gone up dramatically.
The cost of plastic bottle caps has risen by 300 percent, he said.
"I think most of the reason you're seeing store shelves empty of bottled water is not that there's really a rush on bottled water like there was on toilet paper. It's mostly there's a shortage of resin material used to make the plastic bottles," Hall said.
He became aware of the scope of the plastic shortage when he attempted to place an order for more 5-gallon jugs two months ago.
"They kind of laughed at me and said, 'You're not going to get those any time soon,'" Hall said.
The plastic shortage is good news for Rick Gillihan, general manager of Western Recycling, which handles the city of Pocatello's recyclables.
In late 2020, China had just stopped importing waste paper and plastics for recycling and Hall said Western Recycling was storing its mixed bales, unable to find buyers. Since then, Hall said prices paid for recyclable materials have risen steadily, as new domestic processors have come online.
"They're now processed in the U.S. They seem to be taking anything and everything they can get their hands on right now," Gillihan said.
Furthermore, resin shortages have helped push prices paid for plastic "through the roof," he said.
Based on the improved market for plastic, the price the city of Pocatello pays Western Recycling to take a one-ton bale of plastic has dropped from $188 in January to $111 in July. He said the city's cost will drop even further in August.
Hall believes the market for plastic is beginning to plateau.