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Officials re-examine textbook influenced by plastics industry

cscredon/istockphoto.comFinal text in a state-mandated environmental curriculum on plastic shopping bags included edits from an industry trade group.

News that California educators allowed the chemical industry to weigh in on a new state environmental curriculum has the chemical industry playing defensive while lawmakers and state agencies re-examine a text that focused on plastic shopping bags.

Last week, California Watch published an investigation of an 11th-grade teachers’ guide and student workbook. The final text included changes provided by the American Chemistry Council, the plastic shopping bag industry’s trade group.

In response to California Watch’s investigation, the state’s 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.”

“The lessons that are used to teach our public school students must be free of undue influence by special interests,” Torlakson said.

According to Paul Hefner, Department of Education spokesman, the education agency has asked Cal/EPA for more information about the edits, additions and corrections. Once it gets that information, "we'll review it and decide if further action is warranted," he said.

He said despite the fact that the curriculum went through a thorough review process, the California Watch story "raised some questions" the agency would like to have answered.

In 2003, a state law was enacted requiring environmental concepts and principles be taught to all of California’s K-12 public school students.

Cal/EPA outsourced the development and editing of the curriculum to Gerald Lieberman, director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable. The roundtable is a nonprofit group originally developed by departments of education in 16 states to enhance environmental education in schools.

In 2009, after the curriculum had been written, the state posted final drafts of the text online for public review. It was during that period that a public relations specialist hired by the trade group submitted comments, edits and suggestions on the text.

Lieberman incorporated nearly all of the trade group’s suggestions, including adding a new section to the text called, “Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags.”

A spokeswoman for Cal/EPA, Lindsay VanLaningham, said the state’s curriculum lessons "were developed to encourage critical thinking.”

She said the altered section on plastic shopping bags “took a balanced approach in how it dealt with both the disadvantages and the advantages (of plastic shopping bags) as a way to promote critical thinking about how plastics impact our environment.”

She said California Watch’s article "unfairly portrays the state’s groundbreaking, environment-based curriculum and serves as an injustice.”

The American Chemistry Council also condemned the story, sending letters to news outlets that published it. 

“ACC (American Chemistry Council) asserted no ‘pressure,’ ” wrote Steven Russell, vice president of the trade group’s plastics division. He said California Watch’s story “painted a deeply distorted and almost nefarious picture of the public process.”

In an interview with Plastics News, Russell said: “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.”

"I am troubled that some of the content on plastic bags is inaccurate and may be misleading," said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, who authored a statewide bill to ban plastic shopping bags from drug and grocery stores. "We need to review what happened and make sure (the) model curriculum is accurate and unbiased.”

Filed under: Environment, Daily Report

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