Does plastic bag recycling from stores like Target, Walmart work or still end up in a landfill?

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Tuesday, May 23, 2023
What really happens to plastic bags returned to store for recycling?
Does plastic bag recycling at stores like Target and Walmart really work? The ABC7 I-Team and ABC News launched an investigation to find out.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- You may take the extra time to recycle plastic shopping bags by bringing them to a retailer's plastic bag recycling bin. For months, the I-Team and ABC news tracked plastic bags that we dropped off at store recycling bins around the country and several ended up in landfills or incinerators.

You can't put plastic bags in regular recycling bins or they'll get stuck in machines at recycling facilities.

But how often do bags that are dropped off properly at retail stores get recycled? The I-Team, ABC News, and ABC stations across the country assembled 46 bundles of recyclable plastic bags. Each contained a tracking device.

We glued Air Tags into plastic bags with Gorilla Glue, then wrapped them up in several other plastic bags. All of the bags were dropped off at Target and Walmart stores nationwide, which have hundreds of stores with plastic bag drop off bins.

At the end of January, we dropped off our four bags in the city and suburbs. We monitored the movements and locations for months via the trackers glued inside.

One of our air tagged plastic bags that was dropped off at a Target ended up at a landfill in Wilmington, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. The company that runs the landfill said there is no plastic bag recycling at that location. That bag was originally dropped off at a River North Target.

"I mean, seeing it like right in front of your face it's kind of disappointing," one consumer said.

"It's actually very surprising," said another.

A second bag, dropped off at a Target on the city's southwest side, ended up at a Waste Management facility in Cicero. A Waste Management media spokesperson said trash and recyclables are sorted at the facility, but there is no metal detection sorting that would separate the tracker and there is no plastic bag recycling program.

A Target spokesperson says "Our intention is to make it easy for our guests to recycle clean and empty plastic bags and packaging in our stores. Last year, we recycled nearly 24 million pounds of plastic bags and plastic film materials," and added, "We're committed to looking at our processes to improve our recycling efforts."

The third plastic bag dropped off at a Walmart in west suburban Elmhurst ended up at a landfill near Atkinson, Illinois, about two and a half hours west of Chicago. A spokesperson said the facility does not have a plastic bag recycling program.

And our fourth bag was dropped off at a north suburban Gurnee Walmart, and was tracked to an industrial park in northwest suburban Elk Grove Village, where we found good news. The facility is Cargo Pacific Logistics and someone at the front desk said they do recycle plastic bags.

Walmart said its helped remove more than 2 billion single use bags from circulation and, "We are also pursuing initiatives to reduce the use of single-use plastic including plastic bags, and working with policy makers, waste management companies, non-profits and other retailers to reduce demand for single-use plastic bags."

In all, ABC News and other ABC stations launched 46 trackers. Twenty three of them last pinged at landfills or trash incinerators. Seven last stopped pinging at transfer stations that don't recycle or sort plastic bags, another six last pinged at the store where they were dropped off. It's unclear where three ended up.

Three trackers were shipped to the other side of the world in Southeast Asia. Four trackers ended up at facilities involved with recycling, plastic bags.

"People should keep recycling their metal, their glass, their paper. But plastic recycling has been an abysmal failure," Judith Enk, president of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA Regional Administrator, told ABC News.

Because the overall plastics recycling rate in the U.S. is so low, under 10%, many experts say people should use reusable bags instead.

The American Chemistry Council and other experts say, while recycling plastics isn't perfect, you should still try.

Because of our joint investigation, the company that manages the online drop-off directory for plastic bags is taking action. That company said it removed Walmart and Target stores from their list until they can confirm that the plastic bags and films dropped off in their bins are being recycled, rather than landfilled or incinerated.

The Shedd Aquarium reacted to what the investigation uncovered and the possible danger to wildlife.

The Shedd Aquarium regularly picks up plastics around our area rivers and the lake which helps wildlife and humans too.

The fish and other aquatic wildlife can ingest plastic bags that are not properly recycled or thrown out.

"These are native Great Lakes fish," explained Jaclyn Wegner, director of Conservation Action at the Shedd Aquarium. "Plastic bags are really thin, fine plastic. They can break down pretty easily."

Wegner said consumers should switch to reusable bags because plastic bag recycling can be unreliable.

"These fish especially the ones we're looking at here have relatively small mouths and are going for small food items in the lake," Wegner said.

The Shedd Aquarium regularly picks up plastics around Chicago area rivers and the lake, which helps wildlife and humans, too.

"And those end up in our waterways so they can end up in our drinking water," said Wegner.

You can watch the ABC News Special "Trashed: The Secret Life of Plastic Recycling" Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. on ABC News Live and later on Hulu.