Recycle plastic bags? New information about where they really end up

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Wednesday, April 24, 2024
New information on where your recycled plastic bags really end up
Recycle plastic bags? You may be surprised to hear they often end up in landfills or shipped overseas to places like Indonesia and Malaysia.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It's Earth Week and the ABC7 I-Team and ABC News have new details on their efforts to track plastic bags.

A previous joint investigation found that several plastic bags which were supposed to be recycled ended up in landfills or incinerators. Now there is new information about some of the final destinations.

ABC News and the I-Team first glued trackers to plastic bags in May 2023 and dropped them off at Target and Walmart stores with plastic bag recycling.

Out of the 46 trackers deployed by ABC News and ABC stations, a majority of the bags ended up at landfills or incinerators.

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

About three of the 19 trackers dropped off at Walmart stores went to Southeast Asia. ABC News found that they ended up at facilities in Malaysia and Indonesia. Environmentalists and critics said that could contribute to plastic waste pollution there, and that the U.S. government must do more to stop it.

"It is irresponsible and unethical to be exporting plastic waste to other countries that do not have a recycling infrastructure set up to handle this," said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA Regional Administrator.

Two of those trackers in Malaysia are not far from where local environmentalist with Kuala Langat Environmental Action Association Pua Lay Peng lives.

"We want to let people who send their waste to Malaysia know that we need your help," Peng said. "Why you think that we are better than you to manage the waste you created?"

RELATED: National plastic bag recycling directory site down after I-Team, ABC News track bags to landfills

Another tracker landed just outside three affiliated plastic facilities in Batam, Indonesia. As of 2020, two of those facilities were reportedly under investigation for illegal dumping in drainage ditches directly behind them.

Walmart said that it strives to do the right thing and while its bag recycling program isn't perfect, it provides access to recycling for millions. Walmart says it's committed to improving its recycling and pointed to "enhanced contracts that explicitly require companies (they work with) to ensure and prove that eligible materials collected through (their) program are recycled to the maximum extent practicable."

There were also more questions about another four trackers ended up at facilities that say they are involved with recycling plastic bags.

After digging through public records and making additional calls, ABC News learned that all four facilities are likely either dumping here in the U.S. or exporting the plastic to recyclers abroad.

One of those four facilities is in the Chicago area. The ABC7 I-Team called several times but representatives hung up, then said they were not interested in commenting.

In our original report, both Walmart and Target said they were serious about reducing plastic waste and were committed to looking at ways to improve recycling.

You can see the full ABC News report, Trashed: The Secret life of Plastic Exports, tonight on ABC News Live at 6 p.m. CT and streaming on Hulu.

Since our initial investigations, Walmart and Target were dropped from the National Plastic Bag Recycling Directory website. Months later, that site was disabled. The CEO of the company that manages the site said it was partially due to a lack of funding. But, it was also in part to address the illusion of what's really getting recycled.