Trashed or transformed? 9 Investigates the secret life of plastic recycling

CHARLOTTE — For most people, plastic bags are a part of life. They are in grocery stores, malls, big box retailers and more. The average person uses hundreds of them each year. Several big box retailers and grocery stores advertise their ability to recycle them. But what happens after you drop them off at the store?

A Channel 9 and ABC News investigation discovered that even when placed in the store bins properly, the bags might not always get recycled.

Channel 9 Government Reporter Joe Bruno teamed up with ABC News reporters across the country. Bruno gathered dozens of plastic bags to see what happens when they are recycled at Walmart and Target.

To do that, Channel 9 purchased Apple AirTags and super glued them onto bags. We tucked the tracker bag in with several other bags at each location. While we can’t be 100% sure the trackers stayed with the bags, the bags were secured tightly.

ABC News reporters in 10 states joined Channel 9 on this experiment. All of the bags were dropped off at Walmarts and Targets with bins labeled for plastic bag recycling.

Channel 9 dropped off bags at the Targets in Midtown and University City and the Walmarts in University City and Steele Creek.

In total, ABC stations across the country launched 46 trackers and 23 of them last pinged at landfills or trash incinerators. Seven last stopped pinging at transfer stations that don’t recycle or sort plastic bags. Six last pinged at the store they were dropped off and haven’t been heard from in months. For three of them, we can’t definitively say where they ended up. Three trackers were shipped to the other side of the world, to southeast Asia. Only four trackers ended up at facilities in the U.S. involved with recycling them.

As for Channel 9′s trackers, the tracker placed in our Midtown Target bags stopped pinging on Feb.16. If they ever moved, the AirTag didn’t pick it up. The Steele Creek Walmart bag tracker ended up at a Sam’s Club Distribution Center. No recycling takes place there. It’s unclear why they made a visit. Our last ping for the University Walmart bag tracker was at the Queen City Transfer Station. This is also not a recycling center. The tracker for the University Target bags show they took the furthest trip, ending up in the Anson Landfill in Polkton.

“It takes 1,000 years for them to degrade,” Envision Charlotte’s Amy Aussieker said.

If those Target bags did, in fact, end up at the landfill, they’ll be around for a while, according to Amy Aussieker with Envision Charlotte. Her nonprofit can turn some plastic take out containers into filament for 3D printers. She says she is not surprised by our findings. She says companies come to her all the time wanting to recycle plastic bags but she has to turn them away.

“You can’t really recycle them,” she said.

You aren’t supposed to put them in the curbside bin either but that doesn’t stop people.

Mecklenburg County Solid Waste Services Director Jeff Smithberger gave Channel 9 a tour of the Mecklenburg County Materials Recovery Facility on Amble Drive.

“I tell people when they put their cans at the curbside and they want it to go away, this is away,” he said.

Every day, thousands of recyclables are sorted and shipped and is filled with things that shouldn’t be in there like nerf guns, metal rods and plastic bags.

“Unfortunately there are some things in our recycling system that do not lend themselves good to recycling,” he said. “Plastic bags are one of those things.”

On a daily basis, plastic bags get stuck in the county’s Starscreen, a large piece of equipment that sorts recyclables. A worker has to physically tie his or herself to a metal rod and use a knife to cut through the plastic bags so the machine can work again.

The county is in the process of updating its equipment. Once finished, bags still won’t be allowed but the system won’t be as fragile.

Smithberger says one contaminated bag can cause a whole load to be rejected so he’s not surprised if the bags didn’t make it to a recycling center. But he says bringing them into stores is still better than placing them in a bin.

Even if it doesn’t work out with the retailer, that’s still where they are supposed to go?” Bruno asked.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We do not want plastic bags here with the residential recycling.”

Smithberger and Aussiker encourage people to re-use bags or use totes instead.

They say just because you wish something can be recycled, doesn’t mean it can, or in our case, will be.

Target and Walmart declined requests for on camera interviews, but provided the following statements.

Statement from Target:

“Our intention is to make it easy for our guests to recycle clean and empty plastic bags and packaging in our stores. We’re proud of the recycling impact we’re making – last year, we recycled nearly 24 million pounds of plastic bags and plastic film materials from our in-store recycling bins and across our store and distribution center operations. We take seriously the role we play in reducing waste and we’re committed to looking at our processes to improve our recycling efforts.”

Statement from Walmart:

Walmart offers in-store recycling bins for plastic bags as an option for customers who may not have access to curbside recycling. 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. To date, Walmart has helped remove over 2 billion single use bags from circulation and we are working across our omnichannel network to continue shifting to more sustainable choices.

Response to the investigation

In response to the investigation, research company Stina, which manages the online drop-off directory promoted by the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP), told us just hours before our story aired that they removed all Walmarts and Targets from their list until they can confirm that their store drop-off film and bag material is being recycled, rather than landfilled or incinerated.

>> You can stream the full ABC News investigation -- Trashed: The Secret Life of Plastic Recycling -- on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC News Live and later on Hulu.

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