Greenwash of the Month: “My Teacher Says Plastic Bags are A-OK!”

It’s like the plot for an action-filled Hollywood movie:  the evil mastermind tries to  gain power and control by indoctrinating the unsuspecting civilians.  In this case, the villain is the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s trade group.  And the Council’s civilian targets?  They’re California’s school children.  Over the past two years, the Chemistry Council has successfully inserted edits and additions about the environmental “benefits” of plastic shopping bags into an 11th-grade environmental textbook.

Yes.  An environmental textbook.  Used for environmental science classes in high schools across California.

The suggested changes were submitted by the trade group during a public comment period in 2009.  A private consultant hired by the state to develop and edit the curriculum inserted the changes, almost verbatim, into the text.

According to California Watch, this rewrite of textbooks and teachers’ guides coincided with a public relations and lobbying effort by the chemistry council to fight proposed plastic bags bans throughout the country.

Now, a section of the text in the teacher’s edition titled, “The Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags,” and a five-point question in a student workbook asking students to list the advantages of plastic bags.

Although the curriculum does include a section on the environmental hazards of plastic bags, the lesson ends with the five-point writing prompt, encouraging students to write about the benefits of plastic bags.  In the teachers’ edition, the correct answer to this question section 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.”

These answers can lead to misleading perceptions of plastic bags and their impact on the environment. When experts examine the entire, cradle to cradle process of energy used in manufacturing, pollution, and disposal, paper bags usually win out over plastic (the even better choice?  Reusable bags!).  Though manufacturing plastic bags may use less energy, most of those plastic bags end up in landfills (less than 1% are recycled each year) and stay there permanently.

Americans use an estimated 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year—almost all of which are thrown into the garbage, where they end up destroying wildlife, and adding to the evergrowing Pacific Garbage Patch and other collections of permanent trash (since plastic bags do not decompose for an estimated 1000 years in landfills). 

“The American Chemistry Council obviously got engaged to protect their bottom line,” Senator Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, told CA Watch. Pavley is author of the 2003 legislation requiring that environmental principles and concepts be taught in the state’s public schools. It’s  inexcusable to allow industry lobbyists with vested interests to rewrite textbooks without even disclosing the source of the passage.

This is greenwashing taken to the next level—it’s the corporatization of the education system.  Children should not be getting thinly disguised corporate advertisements in their “environmental curriculum.”.  Similar to the marketing strategy of cultivating lifelong brand loyalty by targeting youth, these industry-edited school plans promote positive images of plastic bags, encouraging product loyalty among kids in their most vulnerable learning years.

Last month, a librarian at a Santa Cruz High school started a petition to have the industry’s section removed from textbooks. In response to public outcry and investigations into the edits, California superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, issued a statement, saying his office would work with California’s Environmental Protection Agency to examine the material and identify areas “where further review may be warranted.”

Let’s hope they review and remove it quickly.  Our children need, and deserve, an unbiased schooling—a separation of corporate interests and education—nothing less.