California School Officials Edit Environmental Textbook Under Pressure from Plastics Industry

by on September 22, 2011 · 8 comments

in California, Education, Environment

According to Cal/EPA, San Diego Unified School District among those implementing textbook

By Susanne Rust/California Watch

Under pressure from the American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for the plastics industry, school officials in California edited a new environmental curriculum to include positive messages about plastic shopping bags, interviews and documents show.

The rewritten textbooks and teachers’ guides coincided with a public relations and lobbying effort by the chemistry council to fight proposed plastic bag bans throughout the country. But despite the positive message, activists say there is no debate: Plastic bags kill marine animals, leech toxic chemicals and take an estimated 1,000 years to decompose in landfills.

In 2009, a private consultant hired by California school officials added a new section to the 11th-grade teachers’ edition textbook called “The Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags.” The title and some of the textbook language were inserted almost verbatim from letters written by the chemistry council.

Although the curriculum includes the environmental hazards of plastic bags, the consultant also added a five-point question to a workbook asking students to list some advantages. According to the teachers’ edition, the correct answer is: “Plastic shopping bags are very convenient to use. They take less energy to manufacture than paper bags, cost less to transport, and can be reused.”

Americans use an estimated 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year – almost all of which are thrown into the garbage. Grocery stores and other retailers spend about $4 billion a year to purchase the bags for customers.

“The American Chemistry Council obviously got engaged to protect their bottom line,” said Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, author of the 2003 legislation[PDF] requiring that environmental principles and concepts be taught in the state’s public schools. She had been unaware of the lobby’s efforts until contacted by California Watch.

The environmental curriculum, which took seven years to develop, is being tested at 19 school districts that include 140 schools and more than 14,000 students. An additional 400 school districts have signed up to use the curriculum, according to Bryan Ehlers, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant secretary for education and quality programs.

Other states have expressed interest in adopting the California curriculum, including Delaware and Maryland, Ehlers said.

Touted as the first public-private partnership of its kind, the trade group’s edit of California’s school curriculum illustrates a growing concern for special-interest influence over public education. It also shows how school officials abandoned some of their responsibility to write curriculum, handing the heavy lifting over to a paid consultant.

Just this month, Scholastic Inc. – a major textbook publisher – promised to limit its practice of collaborating with corporations to produce classroom materials. The New York-based publisher had been under pressure from parents and education groups to stop distributing a fourth-grade curriculum paid for by the coal industry.

The new California curriculum covers science, history, social studies and arts and weaves in environmental principles and concepts over 85 units and hundreds of pages. The full-color pages of the curriculum, which can be downloaded off the state’s website, mirror the look of a textbook. Teachers are encouraged to use the materials as handouts in the classroom and as reading assignments for students.

“Parents should be outraged that their kids are going to be potentially taught bogus facts written by a plastic-industry consultant suggesting advantages of plastic bags,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a recycling and environmental lobbying group.

To read the rest of this article go to California Watch.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Allthink September 22, 2011 at 2:08 pm
Patty Jones September 22, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Great site! I have contacted them about helping to get the word out on upcoming events. Thanks for the link!


annagrace September 22, 2011 at 2:31 pm

I really flipped when I read this article. The plastic bag argument- “Plastic shopping bags are very convenient to use. They take less energy to manufacture than paper bags, cost less to transport, and can be reused.” is solely based on a comparison to manufactured paper bags, as if that is our only choice. For those of us never leaving home without a stout reusable canvas bag or reusable recycled plastic bag, this argument is of course sheer nonsense.
There are costs associated with these bags that the industry prefers to gloss over- reliance of fossil fuel for production; pressure on landfills; environmental degradation and harm to animals. The “convenience” is that we don’t have to give much thought to these costs.
This shows up in school curricula???? What next- in praise of incandescent lights? I can’t fault the industry for trying- the culpability is with the school district for buying.


The Bearded Obecian September 22, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I’m not sure why they didn’t mention, to me, the largest benefit of plastic bags; helpful in cleaning up after our dogs.


Catherine September 22, 2011 at 3:15 pm

I don’t see the problem with encouraging students to consider the convenience of plastic bags as part of the decision-making process. It’s a legitimate question to consider the convenience vs. the cost to the environment and a good exercise in critical thinking. I doubt that’s why the plastics industry wanted the language there, but whatever. Plastic bags are convenient. I reuse canvas for groceries most of the time, but I can’t pick dog poop up with them. Is it better to use plastic poop bags created solely for that purpose or to get two uses out of plastic grocery bags (once at the store and once for poop?)


annagrace September 22, 2011 at 4:09 pm

I would hope that the topic of “convenience” would indeed be a part of critical analysis in any number of subject areas. The school district does not need to shill for the plastic industry to encourage that kind of discussion.
You and another commenter raised a resonant point about plastic bags as poop collectors. There is certainly a need for a way to dispose of cat and dog poop that doesn’t rely on the plastic bag as we know it. So why haven’t we come up with a solution?
“Excretia management” is a serious issue in countries and areas without waste management infrastructure. Hence the flying toilets- plastic bags used because no sanitation facilities are available and then flung into the air. PeePoo bags were developed as a low cost way to address those sanitation needs.
Pet poo clean up is a legitimate need and we need to do better and can do better than simply giving a free pass to the plastic bag industry.


Bonnie Breckenridge September 22, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Ah, just what we need, more corporate control of education! Sheeesh! Although I looked at the five-point question link and it was very evident that the bad outweighed the good so the teachers could still give it that slant. The idea that “convenience” is a major factor burns my bum. Plastic bags are killing thousands of species in our oceans, infiltrating our soil and water supplies, clogging storm drains and hang like dirty ghosts from trees. Yes! Human convenience far outweighs the health and well being of, well everything and everybody. I’ve been using cloth bags for years and love them! They don’t rip (which the flimsy plastic bags invariably do it there is anything heavy or with sharp corners) and send your stuff hither and thither and I can throw ’em over my shoulder for easy carrying, not to mention I’m not contributing to a grave problem.
I do empathize with pet owners and found the peepoo site an interesting start on a solution and loved the Zerowaste site. Especially the call for organic waste being composted at our landfills. That would be awesome! Thanks! and great comments Annagrace!


Citizen Cane September 23, 2011 at 8:57 am

I hope the textbooks (or future editions) mention the alternative of compostable bags made from corn. There’s also a doggie version:

Put it on your XMAS list for your dog owning friends.


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