Under pressure from a lobbying group for the plastics industry, California school officials edited a new environmental curriculum to include positive messages about plastic shopping bags, interviews and documents show.
The rewritten textbooks and teacher’s guides coincided with a public relations and lobbying effort by the American Chemistry Council to fight proposed plastic bag bans throughout the country, including one eventually approved in San Francisco.
But despite the positive message, activists say plastic bags kill marine animals, leach toxic chemicals, and take an estimated 1,000 years to decompose in landfills.
In 2009, a private consultant hired by state school officials added a new section to the 11th-grade teacher’s 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.
The additions included: “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 state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County), author of the 2003 legislation requiring that environmental principles and concepts be taught in the state’s public schools. She was unaware of the lobby’s efforts until contacted by California Watch.
Testing the curriculum
The environmental curriculum, which took seven years to develop, is being tested at 20 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.
Of those 400 districts, three are in the Bay Area – New Haven Unified School District in Union City, Napa Valley Unified School District and Guerneville Elementary School District, the agency said.
“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.
The chemistry council declined to comment in detail about its work on California’s environmental curriculum. But its views were made known to the state during a period of public review and comment on the curriculum.
The group said it “takes exception to the overall tone, instructional approach and the lack of solutions offered – most especially the lack of mention of the overall solution of plastic recycling,” wrote Alyson Thomas, senior account executive with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, a lobbying firm retained by the trade group.
Removing the additions
Kenneth McDonald, spokesman for the California Department of Education, said he was not aware that the trade group’s edits had been included. He said the development and editing of the content was Cal/EPA’s responsibility.
The education department’s sole duty was to review the curriculum for accuracy, content and overt bias, he said. “Whether or not there was corporate input, nothing problematic was seen,” he said of the changes.
After hearing from California Watch about the chemical industry additions and edits, Pavley said she would write to Cal/EPA to ask officials to remove some of the trade group’s additions. She said the rest of the curriculum was excellent.
As Cal/EPA began preparing the curriculum in 2004, it called together industry trade groups and environmental organizations to provide advice on writing the new curriculum.
A representative from the American Chemistry Council was present at the meeting. So were representatives from oil giant BP, National Geographic and the California Ocean Science Trust. The American Chemistry Council did not provide any financial backing for the development of the curriculum.
By 2009, the curriculum was mostly written, and the chemistry council once again weighed in with criticisms and suggested edits for a section in the 11th-grade text that portrays plastic bags as harmful to the environment.
At the time, the trade group was fighting state and city plastic shopping bag bans across the country. In 2010, it successfully squashed legislation that would have banned plastic bags in California. It was unsuccessful in San Francisco and Los Angeles County, which in recent years have imposed bans.
Although the group will not say how much money it spent on advertising and lobbying the issue, state documents show it has spent more than $9 million lobbying government agencies since 2003.
Control over edits
The state had handed the bulk of the curriculum development and editing responsibility to Gerald Lieberman, director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable, a nonprofit group working to enhance environmental education in schools. Lieberman said the state gave him discretion over whether to include editorial suggestions and comments from outside sources.
The first edit of the teacher’s edition had been highly critical of plastic shopping bags. It highlighted the long decomposition rate of the bags and their threat to marine life and ocean health. That information remains in the text.
A letter with the chemistry council’s comments about the 11th-grade curriculum was presented to Lieberman in 2009 as submissions during a nine-month public comment period. “I never made changes to the text anywhere, in any of the units, that I didn’t see as improving the educational value of the materials, or I would not have made the changes,” he said.
Lieberman incorporated almost all of the trade group’s suggestions into the teacher’s edition, which provides the context and lesson plan for the course. He added the section on the benefits of plastic bags after the chemistry council complained in a letter: “To counteract what is perceived as an exclusively negative positioning of plastic bags issues, we recommend adding a section here entitled ‘Benefits of Plastic Shopping Bags.’ “
California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team, is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Contact Susanne Rust at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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