Plastic Bag Manufacturers Edit California Textbooks

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a lobbying group representing plastic bag manufacturers, successfully convinced the California Department of Education to rewrite its environmental textbooks and teachers' guides to include positive statements about plastic grocery bags. ACC wrote a letter to education department officials that said in part, "To counteract what is perceived as an exclusively negative positioning of plastic bag issues, we recommend adding a section here entitled 'Benefits of Plastic Shopping Bags.'" The state's final document was, in fact, edited to contain a new section titled "Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags."

The title and some of the newly-inserted textbook language were lifted almost verbatim from letters written by the ACC. A private consultant hired by California school officials inserted a question into an environmental workbook quiz asking students to list some advantages of plastic bags. The correct answer to the question (which is worth five points) is: "Plastic bags are very convenient to use. They take less energy to manufacture than paper bags, cost less to transport and can be reused." The changes were made in 2009, and coincided with ACC's nationwide PR and lobbying push to beat back efforts across the U.S. to enact laws and ordinances banning plastic grocery bags. The changes in the environmental curriculum were discovered by the investigative reporting team California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.


Whats wrong with giving both sides of issues and let people decide. Plastic bags do have benefits. No trees are killed compared to paper bags. There is not the possibility of germ transfer as with cloth bags from leaking chicken etc. People can decide when they have the facts.

You still have the possibility of leakage from poorly packaged poultry and seafood within a plastic bag; bagging such foods together, in plastic if you like, prevents contamination of other foods in cloth bags.

Meat, seafood and poultry are a small part of a typical supermarket purchase. Cloth bags can be laundered; they can be re-used many more times than plastic bags, which sometimes even fall apart when you're transferring them from the cart to your car.

What we have here is not "giving both sides and letting people decide," but more corporate propaganda leaking into school curricula.

Nothing wrong with both sides of the story? Well, let's think about the so-called "facts" presented by advocates of Creationism that have made their way into textbooks. Puhleeeze.

Why not look at the choice between using the plastic (petrochemicals) for throw away bags (that never go away) or using the material for things we really need, like medical supplies, lighter weight components in transportation, or emergency shelters for hurricane victims? The larger items are big enough that they are more likely to be recycled.

The convenience of throw away bags wasn't an issue 40 years ago. We lived safely without them then, and can do so again.

I think you are missing two issues here. Firstly a PR firm writing sections in a school textbook does not give balance it gives students an industry view. If it is to be included it should be clearly stated that it is an industry view. Students can then see how industry uses PR to get it's view into textbooks.

Secondly the real choice is not between paper v plastic, it is between reusable bags v throwaway. This is a classic PR re-frame of the discussion to issues that appeal to people rather than the real choice. Neither the plastic nor paper industries want people to reuse bags because of the loss of income.

In Ireland we have a environmental tax on plastic bags equivalent to $0.25. The tax is ring fenced for environmental improvements. Throwaway bag usage has dropped by 95%. You still have the option of buying a throwaway plastic bags if you wish.
(Exceptions apply for small bags for meat etc.).

We no longer see plastic bags littering the streets and countryside. It seems to work. Consumers still have a choice except they now have to pay the real cost and this cost is highly visible not buried in increased prices.

Too often we force a two-sided debate when actually there are multiple sides to an issue. As for plastic bags, we should help our students ask: who owns this message about the benefits of plastic bags? And who stands to profit or gain from it?
If there are benefits to plastic bags, then we must also ask students to identify the negatives and then weigh all sides of the issue and alternatives.
I wonder who owns and promotes the message about cloth bags uniquely carrying bacteria. Hands carry bacteria, every surface carries bacteria. That's why we wash them. Which is easiest to wash and reuse?
As for trees being "killed" for paper bags, we might also want to discuss renewable forests, recycling, half-life, and the full cost of fossil fuels use to make the plastic bags.

I teach media literacy as it applies to food system and environmental messages. Key tenets in media literacy include: knowing who owns the message; identifying persuasive techniques used in the message; seeking missing information, and unintended consequences of the message; being able to recognize embedded values, and then being able to access other sources of information and creating our own media.
In 1906, Yale academic, William Graham Sumner said: "men educated in it (critical thinking) cannot be stampeded by stump makes good citizens."

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.
Food Sleuth, LLC
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As I see it, the problem with giving both sides of an issue is that by doing so, you legitimize points of view that are not valid. there are not two sides to every story and it is not always true that both points of view are valid. Should history textbooks include a section entitled "The Good Things that Slavery did for the Pre-Civil War South", or "Positive contributions of the Nazis to Building a Modern Europe?" I think not. Plastic bags are bad for the environment. end of story.

This issue drove me so batty that I decided to dedicate a Masters thesis to it. We have to decide what our goal is. Are we just interested in avoiding a stinky bag from meat juice leakage? (fair concern, although the consumption of dirty meat from supermarkets likely isn't; vegetarianism, or raising your own meat the ethical high ground solution here), Or is it to consider grander ambitions, like for example, our consumption of fossil fuels (continue to use up fossil fuels to make bags, or direct our efforts towards realizing energy conservation initiatives) so that an energy legacy can be shared with subsequent generations? Are we such capable thinkers? Maybe not. I urge you to read my thesis here for some food for thought:

Until we agree on a goal, subjective commentary after an article such as this typically resembles claptrap.


N. for example, our consumption of fossil fuels (continue to use up fossil fuels to make bags)...."

We don't really use up fossil fuels to make plastic bags; plastics are made as a byproduct of petroleum refined primarily to make fuels. So if we can reduce our use of fossil fuels sufficiently, we'll see a spontaneous reduction in plastic grocery bags at the checkout, together with more biodegradable, renewable wooden toothpicks instead of little plastic swords holding our club sandwiches together.

As for the textbook issue, IMO it takes a pretty apathetic parent not to get outraged about their kid being penalized at school for giving the wrong answer to please some grubby-pawed corporate interest.