Did the Plastic Industry Rewrite California’s Text Books?

CA Environment TextbookA California Watch report published Friday claims to have found evidence that the California state EPA allowed the American Chemistry Council to have undue influence over the drafting of the state’s new environmental curriculum. According to California Watch investigative reporter Susanna Rust, a private consultant hired by California school officials in 2009 inserted a new section in the teacher’s edition of the 11th-grade Mass Production, Marketing and Consumption in the Roaring Twenties textbook entitled “The Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags,” which includes passages lifted verbatim from letters the American Chemistry Council sent during the public comment phase of the curriculum’s drafting.

The consultant also added a workbook question asking students to list the advantages. The correct answer in the teacher’s 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.” In fact, there’s no clear convenience benefit to plastic bags versus paper or reusable bags, reusable bags can be re-used many times more than plastic bags, and the energy question is still very much up for debate.

Nonetheless, environmental groups also had influence over the text, which still contains several paragraphs about the environmental problems posed by plastic bags. In fact, while the ACC submitted comments only twice during the public commenting period, environmental groups were much more involved in the drafting of the curriculum. The issue now seems to be whether those representing corporate interests, with profits to be gained from positive views of their industries or products, should have been allowed any input at all. In addition to the ACC, BP was also given a voice in the drafting process. The California EPA has said it allowed industry input in an effort to keep the text as balanced as possible.

Following passage of a 2003 law requiring California’s public schools to include environmental lessons in their curricula, the state of California spent seven years developing the new curriculum, including several rounds of public comment. The curriculum is now being tested in 19 of the state’s school districts, with 400 more districts signing on to teach the curriculum in the coming school year. The American Chemistry Council denies any undue influence over the drafting of the curriculum, claiming its comments were submitted during the public comment phase, along with several other organizations.

“The purpose of our comments was to correct factual inaccuracies and to present a more complete view of plastic bags’ environmental attributes, including their benefits, which were absent from the draft,” ACC vice president of plastics Steve Russell said in a statement.

The California EPA also stands by the curriculum and the process used to create it. 

“We stand by the integrity of the EEI Curriculum and the open and transparent process in which it was created,” said spokesman Bryan Ehlers. “The curriculum was thoroughly vetted by all appropriate state agencies and was ultimately approved (unanimously) by the California State Board of Education.  Throughout the development process, the State made revisions to the curriculum based on two primary factors:  (1) accuracy; and (2) educational value.  Teacher feedback supports our belief that the EEI engages students on issues of vital importance to them and their environment, including the role of plastic in our society.”

The documents themselves seem to tell a different story, however. The first draft of the curriculum was highly critical of plastic bags and their effect on the marine environment. While that information remains in the textbook, its impact is greatly reduced by the materials on the environmental benefits of plastic bags, all of which seems to have come directly from the American Chemistry Council, a trade group for the plastic industry with a clear interest in promoting plastic bags. Any mention of plastic bags as “litter” has also been scrubbed from the text because, as one ACC spokesperson put it, “Plastic bags don’t start out as litter, they become litter.” 

The argument that it’s people who litter, not the bags themselves, is often used by the American Chemistry Council, but does not account for wind-blown litter, which makes up the lion’s share of plastic bag litter. The ACC also pushed to include more about plastic bag recycling in the text, but activists point out that despite the industry’s efforts to push recycling as a solution to plastic pollution, less than 10% of the 100 billion plastic bags used in the United States each year are recycled, and recycling does not address the impact plastic bags and packaging have on both animal and human health. 

Environmental groups, particularly those that have been actively supporting plastic bag bans in California, are apoplectic about the edits to the curriculum. “As a mother of two kids I say this: Is it not enough that for 100 years our children have been exposed to toxic chemicals from plastic in baby formula cans, plastic baby toys and baby products, baby shampoo and countless others?” said Daniella Russo, executive director of Plastic Pollution Coalition, an Earth Island Project. “Is it not enough that our babies are now born with chemicals in their blood? Now, they need to poison their minds also?! Plastic industry, get out of our bodies, our food, our air, and don’t even try to get into the classrooms!”

State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Santa Monica), who drafted the initial 2003 legislation requiring the state to have an environmental curriculum, is equally disappointed. “The American Chemistry Council obviously got engaged to protect their bottom line,” she told California Watch. Pavley added that she would be encouraging the California EPA to edit the text about plastic bags. 

Now scientists are voicing their concern over the changes to the curriculum as well.

As someone who has actually removed plastic bags from the bodies of endangered animals, I can tell you that the rhetoric of the plastics industry falls apart in the face of reality,” says Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, research associate at the California Academy of Sciences  “A 2009 report showed that almost half of the remaining leatherback turtles carry plastic in them, the most common item being plastic bags. The bags sometimes cause lethal blockages, but more often just take up space that should be occupied by food, impairing health and reproduction. It’s hard enough to be a sea turtle in the ocean these days, they don’t need our plastic in their stomachs.”

The controversy is unfortunate given that everyone, even critics of the text, seems to agree on the overall excellence of the curriculum. While the California EPA has said it will address any corrections in future versions, many parents and environmental activists remain concerned about misinformation being spread in the meantime. According to sources close to the issue, Senator Pavley, the Superintendent of Schools, the state Department of Education, and the California EPA are currently discussing potential solutions. 


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