New state textbooks contain pro-plastic bag phrasing
California schools officials edited the new Education & the Environment Initiative (EEI) curriculum to include positive messages about plastic shopping bags in textbooks and teachers’ guides. This followed pressure from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an interest group representing U.S. chemical companies, including the plastics industry.
Santa Cruz City Schools is among the 19 districts that have implemented the new EEI curriculum, according to California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA). Cal/EPA, in tandem with the Department of Education, is tasked with overseeing the EEI curriculum.
“What ended up getting into textbooks was a section on the advantage of plastic shopping bags,” says David Gamburd, who works with the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) on the UC Santa Cruz campus to educate students about the harmful environmental impacts of plastics.
The new California curriculum incorporates the environmental hazards of plastics, however a five-point workbook question asking students to list the advantages of plastic shopping bags was also included. The correct answer, according to the teachers’ edition, 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.”
Gamburd says he is disgusted by the inclusion of pro-plastic “propaganda” in California environmental education.
“I think this is a good example of how lobbying in this country can have a harmful impact,” says Gamburd. “[It is] shocking to see that this actually makes its way into textbooks.”
The EEI curriculum took seven years to develop and is being tested at 19 California school districts that include 140 schools and more than 14,000 students. This includes Santa Cruz City Schools.
A private consultant hired by California school officials added a section entitled “The Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags” to the 11th-grade teachers’ edition textbook in 2009. The title and parts of the textbook language are almost identical to letters written by the ACC.
The rewritten textbooks and teachers’ guides coincided with a public relations and lobbying effort by the ACC to fight proposed plastic bag bans throughout the country. The United States uses an estimated 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year. Grocery stores and other retailers spend about $4 billion per year to purchase plastic bags for customers. The ACC has threatened to sue cities and counties that ban plastic bags.
The ACC did not return multiple phone calls requesting an interview.
When Santa Cruz County banned plastic shopping bags in September, they did so at the known risk of a lawsuit and, in October, a pro-plastic bag group unaffiliated with the ACC filed a lawsuit against the county.
Laura Kasa, local executive director for Save Our Shores (SOS), part of a coalition of groups that works to reduce plastic pollution in California, says the group has a representative working with the California Department of Education and Cal/EPA to encourage a revision of the curriculum.
“The problem is that the facts”—such as that plastic bags require less energy to produce than paper bags—“seem to be backed by science so we can’t say they are inaccurate, but there is no information about trying to get people to move to reusable bags and products,” Kasa writes in an email.
Despite the positive light shed on plastics by interest groups, activists say there is no debate: Plastic bags are toxic to marine animals, and the ecosystem at large. Plastics leech toxic chemicals and take an estimated 1,000 years to decompose in landfills, which is where most end up.
“We’ve found that only an incredibly small percentage of people actually reuse plastic bags, and most of them are just thrown away,” says Gamburd. “The sheer mass quantity of plastic bags used on a visit to the grocery store is shocking. If you go to Safeway and see a cart come out, there could be 20 bags in that cart just for one person.”
Gamburd noted one gigantic impact plastic shopping bags can have on the environment—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean that is estimated to be twice the size of Texas and primarily composed of shore litter, according to research conducted by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation based in Long Beach, Calif., which has studied the garbage patch for more than a decade.
“Everyday littering—plastic bags that are carried away by the wind—make their way into the ocean,” says Gamburd.
According to the California Department of Education, the curriculum in question is one “minor” section within one of 85 environmental curriculum units developed by Cal/EPA.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a public statement on Aug. 19, “The lessons that are used to teach our public school students must be free of undue influence by special interests, whether they represent industry or environmentalists …”
Torlakson concluded the statement by asking his staff to work with Cal/EPA to identify areas where “further review may be warranted.” Photos: Keana Parker