Plastic shopping bags are good for you – and for industry!

Why do I feel like a slightly dull-witted school child when browsing the consumer websites run by the oh-so-clever American Chemical Council Inc., a trade and lobby group for the chemical industry? Come to think of it, I spent 20 years of my life living with a chemistry geek – and I often felt that same way then, too. It always seemed that if only I were better able to pay attention to what chemists were telling me, they would somehow all make perfect sense.  Trouble is, they don’t. Still.

It’s been said that the American Chemical Council Inc. (ACC) has never met a chemical it didn’t like. This is a powerful advocacy group for a chemical industry dream team whose membership includes heavy hitters like Monsanto, Exxon, Bayer, Merck, Chevron, DuPont and many more.

Their collective power extends much farther than you might imagine.  For example, the ACC has even convinced the entire California Department of Education to rewrite the state’s environmental textbooks and teachers’ guides to include positive statements about plastic grocery bags. 

According to PR Watch (August 23, 2011), a report from The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the ACC wrote a letter to California’s 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 about the benefits of plastic shopping bags.”

The first draft of California’s Grade 11 environmental science curriculum had been highly critical of plastic bags and their effect on the coast’s marine environment. While that information remains in their high school textbooks, it is now far outweighed by information on the environmental benefits of plastic bags. Any mention of plastic bags as “litter” has also been scrubbed from the text because, as one ACC spokesperson explained:

“Plastic bags don’t start out as litter; they become litter.”

The state’s final document was, in fact, edited to contain a new section titled “Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags”, exactly as the American Chemical Council Inc. had recommended.

This 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 even inserted a question into an environmental workbook quiz asking students to list some advantages of plastic grocery 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.”

These textbook changes were made in 2009, and coincided with ACC’s nationwide PR and lobbying push to beat back efforts to enact laws and ordinances banning plastic grocery bags.

So what’s the big deal about plastic bags? Here’s what the World Wildlife Federation has to say:

  • Plastic bags have a huge impact on our oceans – in fact, plastics overall make up 60-90% of all marine debris.
  • Marine life gets entangled in plastic debris and some species, such as sea turtles, often choke when they mistake plastic bags for food such as jellyfish.
  • It takes between 450 and 1,000 years for plastic bags to break down in a landfill. But plastic never really does degrade completely.
  • Even when the bags begin to break down into fragments, they still pose a lethal threat to many species. It ends up as “plastic dust”, lining our landfills and swallowed up by marine animals.

Commenting on the PR Watch report, Melinda Hemmelgarn explained:

“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?”

One high school librarian from Santa Cruz has gone one step further. Enraged by news of the American Chemical Council’s influence on her school’s textbooks, Veronica Zaleha started a petition asking the state to remove what she calls “harmful and misleading” information in these texts. On the petition site,, she explained:

“The recent insertion of pro-plastic bag text into California’s state curriculum by the American Chemistry Council (a lobbying arm of the chemical industry that makes plastic bags) is absolutely inexcusable.

“Industry lobbyists have no business editing state curricula, especially when the information encourages poor environmental practice and is disputed by factual evidence.”

When the city of Seattle passed an ordinance in 2009 to help reduce the use of plastic grocery shopping bags by imposing what was called the Seattle Green Bag Fee, opponents of the fee rallied.

Or did they? An opposing “consumer group” calling itself the “Coalition to Stop the Bag Tax” turned out to be, not surprisingly, fully funded by the American Chemical Council Inc. The plastics industry bankrolled a referendum to put the question to voters, and then outspent the anti-plastic environmental movement by 15 to one to defeat the bag fee.

As one Seattleite observed in the Post-Intelligencer:

“The American Chemistry Council opposes this legislation for one simple reason: they are profiting from the sale of disposable plastics, like bags.”

Here is a very handy consumer website run by your very brainy friends at the American Chemical Council Inc.  In case you are still confused about all the bad things you may have heard about environmental problems associated with the utterly innocent plastic shopping bag, this site will set you straight:

  • What You Should Know About Plastic Bags  “Did you know bags and wraps are fully recyclable and an environmentally responsible choice? Did you know plastic bags can become backyard decking, park benches and playground equipment? This website shows the environmental attributes of plastic bags, stories from communities that have implemented successful recycling programs, and tips on how to reduce, reuse and recycle!”

The ACC also hosts several other consumer-friendly sites such as:

  • Dioxin Facts  Apparently, the stupid dolts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still claim that small traces of dioxin that are well within acceptable background levels may pose a significant health risk.  This site will correct those wrong-headed claims.
  • Plastics Make It Possible®  “This website highlights the many ways plastics inspire innovations that improve our lives, solve big problems and help us design a safer, more promising future!”

This year alone, the American Chemistry Council spent $1.65 million in the second quarter to lobby the U.S. government on issues ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to anti-terrorism security for chemical facilities, according to a recent disclosure report. That’s up from $1.33 million in lobbying expenditures in the first quarter.  Lobbyists also discussed climate change, the federal budget and tax reform.

In addition to lobbying politicians, the Council lobbied a number of agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, and the departments of Interior, Health and Human Services and Treasury, according to the report filed July 19, 2011 at the House clerk’s office.

Read The Life Cycle of the Urban Tumbleweed for information that has not been provided by the American Chemical Council Inc.

See also: 50 Surprising Products You Use Every Day That are Made From Petroleum

9 thoughts on “Plastic shopping bags are good for you – and for industry!

  1. I feel complete despair when I read a posting such as this. Are the people of Seattle not able to see that someone has an agenda and that the referendum message is completely biased ? Has everyone in the California Curriculum Department lost the ability to think clearly and understand what/who is behind the suggestions for changing the curriculum around plastic products??

    I can’t believe I live in a world that accepts/allows this sort of thing to happen and wonder what it will be like for my grandchildren when they are adults.

    • Hi Gail – sadly, money talks and the ACC has millions to spend on its lobbying efforts. But there are already 30,000 petition signatures so far from the Santa Cruz school librarian who’s demanding changes – we live in hope, right?
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. I loved your post on the ACC! I’ve been working against them for many years now– I worked on SF’s plastic bag ban and Seattle’s failed policy as well. You included a LOT of stories into that one post– well done! I found it on google alerts btw since I have one for the ACC.

    • Thanks for commenting, and for your efforts to protect the environment in SF and Seattle. 🙂 Keep up the good work!

    • Hi Sophia,

      Good grief. Recent Seattle news coverage notes that Keller’s anti-ban campaign is not being funded by the plastic bag industry – yet.

      I just don’t get it. San Francisco banned plastic bags in 2007 and right away saw (non-biodegradable) plastic bag litter in the city decrease by 18%. China, the world’s leading consumer of plastic bags, officially banned them throughout the entire country in 2008 and, in the years since, has reduced its bag consumption by half, saving 1.6 million tons of oil in the process. World cities like London and Paris have already banned plastic bags – maybe it’s time for Mr. Keller to face reality?

      Thanks for the heads up!

      • The gentleman in question is also known for backing an entity (“Respect Washington”) that tried to create immigration restriction laws in our state. I have friends in his neighborhood who tell me that he is a very red state Republican in many of his views but seems pretty intelligent and principled in his day-to-day treatment of his neighbors–they think it’s a shame he goes on these odd ill-informed rampages when he obviously has talents that could be used far more constructively.

  3. Check out my new blog

    On my blog I have a downloads menu item. If you click on that there are a number of papers that I have written that can be downloaded.

    One paper titled “Negative Health and Environmental Impacts of Reusable Shopping Bags” deals with the health issues more extensively than you did in the article above. For example, in addition to bacteria, viruses and virus transmission with reusable shopping bags could make other sick. Also, people who have AIDS or a suppressed immune system may be more sensitive to bacteria in reusable bags then people who have normal immune systems. About 20% of the population fit in this category.

    Also, when bag bans are implemented people always complain about all those plastic bags that end up in the landfill. But they have never stopped to calculate all the stuff going into a landfill after a plastic carryout bag ban compared to before. It would surprise you to know that 3.5 times the amount of material goes into the landfill post ban than pre ban. Those plastic carryout bags are sure looking good. see my article titled “Fact Sheet – Landfill Impacts” for the details and the calculations.

    There is much more.

  4. Pingback: MIKELA BOND

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s