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:

11 Responses to “Paper, Plastic, or Neither? An Olympic Terry Challenge”

  1. Brenda

    Could the same be said about styrofoam packaging? I was thinking about this at lunch today, seeing mountainous piles of styrofoam containers and cups and boxes and all the plastic lids that go with them. So many of them are used at take out places. Or packing leftovers from restaurants, sometimes we take home only a bite or two of food that will not end up tasting great post-microwaving anyways. Could we skip styrofoam take-out packaging? Or simply order food that we can finish?

  2. Dave Semeniuk

    Could we skip styrofoam take-out packaging? Or simply order food that we can finish?

    I would like to know, before ordering, whether the “Pork Chop Stuffed with mango chutney” I am salivating over is the size of my fist or my head. Otherwise, I feel like I’m either wasting food or styrofoam.

    Of course, you could bring your own reusable plasticware and ask the server to use it instead of styrofoam. I make a concerted effort to only pick-up take-out from places that use recyclable cardboard containers. This sort of societal change is ultimately a grass roots driven one – start, and lead by example?

  3. Beth Terry

    A great challenge. And that is exactly how I have managed to train myself to remember my bags. If I need something and don’t have a way to carry it home, I don’t buy it. Period. Sometimes that is really inconvenient. But what plastic is doing to our oceans and other creatures on the planet is terribly inconvenient for them, isn’t it?

    I regularly blog about ways to reduce our plastic consumption and plastic waste at


  4. Lindz

    I applaud the idea of no plastic=no shopping. However, if you must drive home to collect your environmentally friendly shopping bags and drive back to the store, how much environment damage are you really preventing? Also, what about buying products with less packaging? For example, a bulk food store I used to frequent allowed you to buy only as much of a product as you needed (and they had an excellent selection) plus you could provide your own containers/bags (such as re-using a yoghurt container for peanut butter). Buying bulk helps reduce the amount of plastic waste.

  5. Dave Semeniuk

    However, if you must drive home to collect your environmentally friendly shopping bags and drive back to the store, how much environment damage are you really preventing.

    Then don’t eat! Well…no. I guess the point is to take a personal stand to use cloth bags, such that you will not forget to bring them. I’ve adopted this, and simply keep a single bag with me at all times. In my case, going home and back means walking 8 blocks – not driving 8 km. If anything, having to drive might be more of a motivation not to forget them.

    Buying bulk helps reduce the amount of plastic waste
    I totally agree.

  6. Abby

    Hey: that’s a great idea. I switched from using plastic bags to using cloth bags, and it took 10 months to use up the excess plastic bags that I had laying around. I wish you the very best in your quest to switch. It’s well worth it. Furthermore, you’ll find that you can carry a lot more in a cloth bag. Don’t let the bag-boys, or bag-girls, or check stand clerks bully you into using a plastic bag. Stand firm, develop a rhino-hide for the negative commentary, and disregard the eye-rolls, enjoy the positive comments. always carry your bags. it takes a bit to remember them, but make them a part of your leaving home checklist. door key? bus pass? bags? wallet? water bottle? ready to roll. (I live way up north and don’t have a bus pass, but I presume that you take the bus since you live in Greater Vancouver.)

  7. Mo D

    I’ve switched to cloth a while back as well, but I must admit I do tend to forget and just take the plastic if I do forget. Alas, another challenge to add to the one where i promised to never purchase a plastic water bottle at school ever again. For the last year, I think I may have bought only one or two off campus. I do feel a little weighed down as I walk from class to class, mainly because I have my refillable water bottle, a reuseable mug, and a reuseable container for takeout/leftovers. It really would be nice to get a hot/cold refillable mug, but I guess just producing that would consume plenty more energy and my others would be rendered useless.

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