Council to send letter urging removal of pro plastic bag language in state curriculum

A plastic bag sits on the bank of Strawberry Creek.
Levy Yun/Staff
A plastic bag sits on the bank of Strawberry Creek.

The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday in favor of sending a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, urging them to rescind the state Department of Education’s acceptance of pro-plastic bag edits to California’s environmental curriculum.

The letter — originally proposed by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin — seeks to expedite the removal of language promoting the use of plastic bags from public high school curriculum. Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Susan Wengraf and Gordon Wozniak abstained from the vote.

In 2003, legislation authored by Assemblymember Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, requiring that environmental principles and concepts be taught in the state’s public schools was signed into law. In 2004, the California Environmental Protection Agency was given the task of developing and editing the content for the curriculum.

Seven years later, the new curriculum was implemented on a trial basis in 19 school districts encompassing more than 140 schools and over 14,000 students.

In a recent report by California Watch — a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting — the new environmental curriculum was edited to include positive messages about plastic bags after receiving pressure from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which was hired by the environmental agency as a consultant.

The ACC is a trade group representing and lobbying for the interests of the plastics industry. Many of the edits were accepted verbatim from letters written by the ACC, including the title for a new section called “The Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags.”

“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,” one of the edits reads.

Americans use an estimated 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year — almost all of which are thrown into the garbage and take hundreds of years to decompose, with many ending up in the ocean as debris.

“It is completely inappropriate and wrong to allow a business interest to dictate material,” Arreguin said. “This does not encourage critical thinking and does not allow for the students of California to make informed choices.”

The ACC has used extensive litigation to fight proposed plastic bag bans across the nation, including in Berkeley. The ACC, along with other special interest groups, such as Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, contends that cities must complete Environmental Impact Reports before implementing a ban on plastic bags.

However, in July, the California state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Manhattan Beach in Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. city of Manhattan Beach, et al. Justice Carol Corrigan cited that “substantial evidence and common sense” show that the ban would not harm the environment. The ruling overturned an appellate court decision.

The Manhattan Beach ruling clears major hurdles for proponents of the ban on plastic bags. Numerous cities across the state are expected to institute bans in the months to come.