Paper, Plastic, or Neither? An Olympic Terry Challenge


Olympic swimming pool

Some Olympic math …

The 2010 Olympics are coming to Vancouver in approximately 785 days (according to the monstrous countdown clock outside the Vancouver Art Gallery), and VANOC is putting sustainability near the top of their agenda – along with organizing over 6000 athletes from more than 80 countries, 35,000 volunteers, and 1.8 million tickets (and, of course, ticket holders) (source).

This weekend, I organized an equally difficult task: preparing to bake Christmas cookies and make a glorious gingerbread house with my girlfriend. Spending hours upon hours walking and shopping for our anticipated candied spectacle got me thinking about plastic bags: both my girlfriend and I have adopted cloth bags as a greener alternative to paper or plastic – but how much plastic were we actually saving? If we were diligent about strictly using our cloth bags (for which I am terrible at following), and collate all the spared bags into one lump mass, what would we be looking at? I think most people have a very difficult time thinking about these sort of ephemeral statistics, since we rarely conceptualize how much “stuff” we actually go through on a daily basis.

As such, I was determined to figure out how much plastic I would normally use had I not switched to cloth bags: assuming a single LDPE grocery bag weighs ~6g, that I use 2 bags a day (I grocery shop daily, and typically visit 2 stores each day), and using 0.92g/cm^3 to convert bags into a volume of plastic (1L = 1000cm^3), I would be personally responsible for using and throwing away roughly 4.7L worth of plastic grocery bags in a year. That’s roughly the equivalent volume of 20 of these (coffee stains and all):

Bamfield Coffee Mug

…or 80 of these: Egg in Hand

Now, that might not seem like much – but imagine if we were to gather all the plastic grocery bags from every individual in the Greater Vancouver Regional District: assuming a 2006 population of 2.18 million, the GVRD is responsible for a whopping 10 million litres of plastic every year. That’s four Olympic pools of plastic, or 17 millions cups of coffee, or 20 million egg volume equivalents every year.

Besides the higher carbon emissions with processing tens of millions of plastic bags every year, these bags inevitably make their way out of our homes into the environment and landfill. What if every GVRD resident were to switch to cloth bags to carry their groceries – such a simple task that is easily incorporated into their shopping routines – until the Olympics in 2010? Well, we’d save a small West-End high rise apartment building of plastic – nearly 9 Olympic swimming pools worth.

…And My Olympic Challenge

I’m terrible at remembering my cloth bags, and have a huge collection of bags I reuse once before throwing away (to carry garbage, no less). Now that I’ve done the math, I really don’t have any excuses for a “out of sight out of mind” attitude – I am determined to curb my fix for 20 yearly cups of ooey gooey plastic, or my hankering for 20 soft boiled plastic eggs.

My challenge is thusly as follows: if I don’t have a cloth bag, I don’t buy groceries. Done. No discussion, no alternative. If I want to eat, I go home and get my bags first.

Lastly, I’d like to challenge you, my dear Terry reader, to do the same. Let us save a high rise of plastic over the next 2 years. Anyone care to name the building? I like Polyethylene Skyrise, or the “PESKY Rise”.

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: