The Indicator from Planet Money - Plastic Is The New Toilet Paper For Scientists

A lot of pandemic-related supply chain snafus have been corrected, but scientists are still struggling to get some of their most basic supplies. What's going on?

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Email from a listener not too long ago. It was about their work. So they asked not to be named but we can tell you is that this person is a scientist and they wrote to us about a shortage of one Supply in particular your study mail said I'm a scientist and there is a major shortage in basic lab supplies that are made from plastic / polypropylene. What are the economics of plastic trade and Manufacturing such that they can't keep up with them and remember back when all those weird previously basic seeding products are sold out at the store. Like toilet paper toilet paper chocolate chips was another I couldn't find flower. It seems like everybody was with stress baking for many of us. Luckily those shortages have gone away, but for scientists no dice all kinds of plastic lab supplies plastic tubes Petri dishes, even the robots that use them. It can be backordered for months for scientist.

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It's like trying to work in a restaurant without pots and pans. So prices are soaring scientists are bartering. They are even hoarding supplies. If you are a lab scientist right now Plastics are the new toilet paper.

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Welcome to the indicator on David gura. We are in for Stacey Vanek Smith. Let's go to show we go on a hunt to track down the answer to this particular lister's question. What is behind the shortages in the multibillion-dollar plastic lab supply industry?

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We couldn't talk to the scientist who wrote in at least not on are so instead. We called up another scientist facing the same problem. Not enough plastic lab supplies Market on schefsky is a scientist in Pittsburgh cheap researches drugs for rare genetic diseases the kind that mostly don't have cures just supportive care for us scientists people the lab Monica Works in looks kind of like a high school chemistry lab all those waist-high gray countertops. Lots of white cabinets its brightly-lit there shiny floors with his color geometric patterns all over them, but way fancier because Monica uses all kinds of high-tech equipment even robots, but right now one of her biggest stumbling blocks is this plastic shortage. We have a co-worker who has what we refer to as the stash several boxes of different types of things that are underneath a lab bench that you have to actually crawl under to get let down on your hands and knees stash is mostly full of

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The tubes called pipettes. They look kind of like eye droppers. They're basically straws you use them to suck liquid up out of one tube and drop it into another chances are if you're running experiments on anything from blood to your into mysterious cancer cells, you will be using a pie pan different very precise sizes really important that you have the right one. Otherwise your pipette might be too skinny or they might be too short which means that we can't reach the bottom of the thing that we're trying to get the Liquid out of a problem. Most of these pipette these plastic tubes are single-use because scientists can't risk contaminating their samples. The prices can vary depending on the size and whether or not you buy in bulk, but the ones Monica uses tend to be around fifty cents each. These are Staples of the Science World. If you work in a lab you could be using hundreds of these a day Monica says at her lab the problems started last summer when pipettes became really hard to find one of her co-workers requested a quote back in January.

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They're not supposed to be in our lab until June when it comes to buying plastic supplies for science labs. There is an added wrinkle. It's a dilemma that we non-science. He consumers also have to deal with which is when you buy lab equipment you were buying into this whole ecosystem like when you buy a phone and you have to decide you want to get an iPhone Should you get an iPhone? It's a really big decision because then you need all of these other Apple products that special charger the airpods and the same thing is true in Monica's lab certain science equipment only works with certain other equipment and that means Monica can't just buy supplies from any company which makes tracking down supplies during a shortage even harder and is also a major time-suck spending your time science saying you're spending your time like online shopping. Yes. Yes, when scientific Monica need to buy supplies. They order from a kind of Staples or Amazon or OfficeMax at the lab. Supply World gave how it works with one of these come.

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Is it's a midsize lab supply distributor based in San Diego normally scientist might just Place their orders with Gabe. But right now he's getting a lot of frustrated text. He says there are a ton of reasons for the shortage is a perfect storm has not speaking metaphorically here. He's talking about an actual storm. The one that left huge parts of Texas and a bunch of chemical plants. They're the kind of make plastic without power in the supply problem. And on top of that there a shipping delays when ships dock he says they often have to quarantine before unloading. I've heard there's delays in finding shipping containers. Even we had a ship that arrived in Long Beach and it sat in Port for I believe two weeks. Just waiting to get unloaded and there was nothing we could do about it corn teams are in place because of the pandemic which is affecting other parts of the supply chain as well Corning which makes tubes and vials and other lab supplies as a whole letter explaining the delay is on its website.

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And it says one of the biggest slowdowns is because of the US defense production act which prioritizes supplies for Covetous Demon. It allows the government to tell manufacturers. Hey, you have to sell to the folks were making Covetous first test uses for pipette tips on average and we're doing millions and millions a day and this whole problem the shortage can be easier for big companies and big research labs to deal with than smaller ones. It's not exactly that the big companies get prioritized instead gave us manufacturers will give the really big companies are wrap to deal with purchasing procurement managing their inventory and having somebody on the inside is what gives them a leg up during a supply shortage there. They're whispering in your ear saying hey buy some toilet paper. We're going to have a sort of thing, but can you put works for a distributor? So he also has to go shopping his company buy supplies from a manufacturer. That's the next Link in the supply chain the remote.

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Scientific is a manufacturer makes plastic lab supplies and it says since the man started spiking. It's invested more than 150 million dollars a new capacity is increased output but it just cannot go fast enough de Hong works with Andrew Fisher and he says one big reason is that it can take up to a year to start cranking out a new product the machine the assembly stations in automation, like robots are going to put them all together in the factory. Then usually have to send them off to a sterilization facility to be sterile oil and then go off to a warehouse in order to be distributed. Thermo Fisher has factories around the world in Rochester New York to want to Mexico Denmark that ship some supplies by Air instead of bow, which can be way more expensive and they says Thermo Fisher has had to create over a thousand new jobs as part of its expansion all the time that takes hiring.

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I'm both young Factory workers as well as supervisors people in supply chain quality product management Finance to ensure that we can actually bring all this together. He's a really complex efforts question. There are a lot of reasons for the shortage all of those call. The tests are taking priority right now and back in her lab in Pittsburgh Monica. The scientist says she gets it. She's a biologist by training she knows how much work and research goes into viruses and how important vaccines are but the drugs she's working on our for rare diseases. They don't have cures yet and she can see the perspective of the patients were waiting for those drugs to I am happy that those researchers are able to get everything that they need, but we never shut down either.

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So we're just working through what's available and it's important for us to move forward as well. But for now, she'll have to wait.

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This episode of the indicator was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Philly moon. In fact check by Sam side and edited by Dave Lambert. The indicator is a production of NPR.
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