While working on my Creativity Crisis paper that we are doing for AP Lang, I came across an interesting article that mentions a concept called Fermi problems. The idea behind these problems is that they aren’t really answerable, however, you can go about answering them by making a series of assumptions and estimations until you arrive at an answer.
I really like this concept because the focus is on the process and not the exact facts, though your estimations are still somewhat based on the facts you already know and typically observations. Since our weekly AP Lang blog posts are more about getting us constantly writing rather than the actual facts, I’d like to talk about why the world needs to find a sustainable substitution for styrofoam, through the lens of a Fermi problem. (So just keep in mind that these probably aren’t exact facts since they are just estimations, but they are based on observations and prior knowledge.)
To start, let’s consider, “How much styrofoam does a school use?”
At MVPS, for the upper school, we have two sizes of styrofoam plates and one bowl that we could potentially use at lunch time. The average person using our cafeteria uses about 6 big plates, 2 little plates, and 2 bowls per week. If every 2 little plates or bowls is equal to the amount of styrofoam used to create one big plate, then every person uses 8 styrofoam units (su) a week.
If there are approximately 60 staff members, 65 seniors, 85 Juniors, 80 sophomores, and 75 freshman, then that is about 365 people in the high school using styrofoam. Add that to the approximately 85 eight graders, 70 seventh graders, and 15 7th/8th grade teachers, and that is a total of 535 Glen Campus styrofoam consumers.
535 people times 8 su per person equals 4,280 su used per week.
To take into account that not everyone eats at the Upper School every day of the week we can reasonably subtract about 64 su (if 40 people don’t eat from the cafeteria once a week, that means for every 5 people there is a weeks worth of styrofoam not used). This still leaves us with 4,216 su used per week at the MVPS Upper School alone. We are in school for about 33 weeks, so this number times 33 equals 139,128 su used per school year.
Then you could still add about 3 weeks worth for the 75 total faculty members who are there at least that much over the summer which is another 1800 su.
This brings our total to 140,928 su used per year in the Upper School alone!
Now I don’t want to further estimate numbers for the Lower School, because I believe my calculations will get even more off since I have limited knowledge of that environment.
However, I do know that it is commonly accepted knowledge that it takes styrofoam at least a million years to decompose. This means, that for 999,999 years we will just be adding styrofoam waste onto the Earth and at the least, in 999,999 years, we will have used 140,927,859,100 styrofoam units without anything we’ve previously used decomposing.
The diameter of a styrofoam plate is about 9in. Therefore, if you were to take 140,927,859,100 su and lay them out on the ground, that would cover 1,268,350,732,000 square inches of space which is the equivalent of 105,695,894,300 square ft.
To put this number in perspective, Rhode Island is approximately 29,132,928,000 feet (I did look this one up).
So before any of our styrofoam decomposes, we would be able to cover nearly 4 Rhode Islands with just the amount of styrofoam used at one High School of less than 550 people (and this is without taking into account that the school would likely grow in number of people over the years)!
If one small school could create this much waste, imagine this number multiplied by the millions of schools in America alone! Small numbers add up, and we don’t want to live in a world full of non-decomposing trash to the point where the movie Wall-e stops being fiction. It’s crucial that the people of our world stop using styrofoam, and soon, so that the Earth, our home, doesn’t become a rotting trash can.