Positive plastic bag message makes it into textbook

August 19, 2011 7:46:21 PM PDT
Most California 11th graders will soon be taught the benefits of using plastic over paper, much to the outrage of environmental groups. An industry group successfully lobbied to put a positive spin on plastic supermarket bags, in the state's environmental curriculum, according to an investigation by California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The California EPA began testing te curriculum several months ago. Twenty school districts already have it. According to the California EPA, 400 more school districts have now signed up to use it. A lot of lawmakers and educators pushed for an environmental unit, but they never imagined it would include positive messages about plastic bags.

San Francisco was the first to outlaw plastic grocery bags, four years ago. San Jose and Sunnyvale followed. This year, Marin County did the same. All of them were looking for something more environmentally friendly.

While city and counties were talking about a ban, the American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for the plastics industry, was hard at work proposing changes to a section of the 11th grade social environmental textbook.

For example, a section in the textbook focused on "Problems with Plastic Bags." The Chemistry Council quickly recommended another section on the "Benefits of Plastic Shopping Bags."

Susanne Rust is a reporter with California Watch, which began the investigation. Several environmental groups told her why they have a problem with the American Chemistry Council's input.

"What has happened here is that the government has opened up our children's curriculum, our children's education to private interests," Rust said.

It all began in 2004, when the California EPA was preparing a new curriculum and looking for input from the public. That is when the American Chemistry Council stepped in.

The California EPA assigned a consultant, Gerald Lieberman and his staff to oversee all comments. Lieberman has helped several state departments of education to enhance environmental education in schools.

The California EPA spoke to ABC7 on Lieberman's behalf.

"Ultimately all of those comments and revisions that stem from them were ultimately reviewed by the curriculum commission, by the staff at the Department of Education and by the state Board of Education," California EPA spokesperson Bryan Ehlers said.

And apparently no one opposed it.

One example of what was added to the textbook at the recommendation of the American Chemistry Council says that plastic grocery bags require 70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper bags.

"Absolutely false," environmental lobbying group Californians Against Waste spokesperson Mark Murray said. "The production of plastic bags consumes more resources, more energy, both to produce them and transport them to the grocery stores, than the equivalent amount of paper bags."

Murray and other environmental activists insist plastic bags are bad for wildlife, leech toxic chemicals and take years to decompose.

Another example of what was put in the textbook says plastic bags can be reused, for example, to line household wastebaskets.

The American Chemistry Council issued a statement Friday saying, "The purpose of our comments was to correct factual inaccuracies and to present a more complete view of plastic bags' environmental attributes."

According to Rust, the teacher guidebook states students must be given a test on the benefits of plastic shopping bags.

"If you were told, 'list the advantages of plastic bags and if you don't get them right, you will get five points off,' that teaches a child that there is a correct answer and that this is a valid point of view," Rust said.

State Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, is the lawmaker who introduced the 2003 legislation requiring that environmental principals be taught in California schools. She will now ask that changes be made to the textbook.

"A change, it will be a minor tweak and I'm asking the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Board of Education to please consider that," Pavley said.

Pavley did say what it is very narrow piece of the curriculum that is in question. Overall she described it as an amazing textbook that will put California ahead of everyone else when it comes to environmental literacy.

The following schools have implemented the new Education and the Environment Initiative Curriculum:

1. Alternative Community & Correctional Education School & Services (ACCESS)
2. Barstow Unified School District
3. Calaveras Unified School District
4. Carmel Unified School District
5. Galt Joint Union Elementary School District
6. Gateway Unified School District
7. Glendale Unified School District
8. Guerneville Elementary School District
9. Manhattan Beach Unified School District
10. Manteca Unified School District
11. Napa Valley Unified School District
12. New Haven Unified School District
13. Pasadena Unified School District
14. Poway Unified School District
15. Rocklin Unified School District
16. Ross Valley School District
17. San Diego Unified School District
18. Santa Cruz City Schools
19. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District

The following schools field tested the curriculum between 2007 and 2009, and have used a variety of versions:

1. Albany Unified School District
2. Elk Grove Unified School District
3. Escalon Unified School District
4. Galt Joint Union High School District
5. Lompoc Unified School District
6. San Francisco Unified School District

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