NewsTeam 10 Investigates


TEAM 10 INVESTIGATION: Are your recyclable plastic bags ending up in landfills?

A months-long investigation involving ABC News and several affiliates found some plastic bags dropped off at retailers were not being recycled.
Plastic bag recycling
Posted at 2:10 PM, May 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-25 15:59:51-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — If you're ever out shopping, you know plastic bags are a common sight.

California adopted the country’s first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in 2014. Voters reinforced that in 2016, voting yes on Proposition 67, which is how the thicker reusable plastic bags you pay 10 cents for came to be.

The path for where these bags ended up was part of a months-long investigation.

ABC News, along with nine affiliates and owned stations—including Team 10—assembled bundles of recyclable plastic bags, each containing a tracking device attached securely inside.

Team 10 deployed plastic bag bundles at the Target in Eastlake and Mission Valley, as well as the Walmart store on College Avenue in San Diego on Februay 21.

The teams spent months monitoring each tracker’s location multiple times a day and researched each location on the way, to ask if any type of metal detection to sort plastic bags was used.

The tracking device in the Eastlake Target never pinged outside of the store. The one in Mission Valley last tracked to the landfill in Santee, and the one from Walmart last pinged to the Miramar landfill.

In all, ABC News and its affiliates launched 46 trackers.

  • 23 of them last pinged at landfills or trash incinerators.
  • Seven last stopped pinging at transfer stations that do not recycle or sort plastic bags.
  • Six last pinged at the store they were dropped off in and haven’t been heard from in months.
  • For three others, we cannot definitely say where they ended up.
  • Three trackers were shipped to the other side of the world—two showed up in Malaysia and another went from New York to Indonesia.
  • Only four trackers pinged from facilities here in the U.S. who say they are involved with recycling plastic bags.

Judith Enck is a former EPA Regional Administrator, who told ABC News that no responsible local government or waste company in the United States should be exporting plastic waste to other countries.
“It's called the plastic waste trade. It's the Wild West of exporting plastics, and it's causing real damage, particularly in Indonesia, and Malaysia, and other countries that have not entirely closed their doors to plastic imports,” Enck said.

The results of the ABC News investigation do not surprise Jan Dell, the founder of The Last Beach Cleanup.

“These companies have to stop lying with these recycle symbols because they’re causing real harms,” Dell said.

She is a former chemical engineer who has seen the plastic waste all over the globe. She also deployed 13 trackers in plastic bags late last year. “All of them went to landfill,” she said.

When it comes to the recycle symbol on the bags, Enck said that “it’s often deceptive and misleading advertising.”

“It should be stopped,” she said.

Under SB 270, reusable plastic bags sold in California must be “recyclable in the state,” according to the California attorney general.

“If that’s not being followed, that’s a problem,” Bonta said.

For plastic bag companies to legally sell bags in California, Bonta said that “there must be working collection systems, processing infrastructure and markets to support their recycling.”

“To date, plastic manufacturers have not made efforts to ensure these components exist,” Bonta said in a November news release.

In an interview with Team 10, Bonta said the liability and responsibility lies with the manufacturers.

“That’s how the law reads,” he said. “If they’re going to sell a product and make representations about the fact that it’s being recycled, it has to be true and if that is not happening, they can create the infrastructure, invest in the infrastructure, for that to be true.”

Late last year, Bonta announced an investigation into plastic bag companies sending letters to six manufacturers asking for evidence that they are following law.

Team 10 contacted the six companies— Novolex, Revolution, Inteplast, Advance Polybag, Metro Polybag, and Papier-Mettler.

A Novolex spokesperson said they submitted the information requested by the state. "In accordance with California law, if reusable bags are eligible for recycling, they must be marked as recyclable—a practice that Novolex adheres to," the company told Team 10 in an emailed statement.

The other five companies did not return requests for comment.

“They can’t just sit back and say someone else has to do it, and say these are recyclable but not actually being recycled,” Bonta said.

Republic Services operates the landfill in Santee. When contacted about the tracker that pinged to its landfill, a spokesperson released this statement:

“Republic Services does not accept bags or other flexible plastics for recycling. These are one of the most common contaminants in today’s recycling stream. Plastic bags and other flexible plastics should be placed in the trash. One way consumers can reduce their impact on the environment is by using reusable bags. Furthermore, plastic bags are a significant contaminant at our compost facilities.”

A state commission found the bags hurt curbside recycling systems by clogging machinery. It reported, “There is not a comprehensive store takeback system for plastic bags or films in California.”

The City of San Diego runs the Miramar landfill. When Team 10 asked if the city requires recycling of plastic bags from retailers, the response was that “plastic bag recycling is required by state law.”

There is a recycling center in front of the landfill, operated through the city. The spokesperson confirmed that the recycling center does not accept plastic bags.

“With single-use plastic bags, the real solution is for people to use reusable cloth bags,” a city spokesperson told Team 10 in an email. “The City of San Diego enforces our Recycling Ordinance, which is a mandatory policy requiring the public to separate recyclable material at residences, businesses, mixed use facilities and permitted special events.”

Walmart and Target refused on-camera interviews.

A Target statement said in part, the retailer’s intention “is to make it easy for our guests to recycle clean and empty plastic bags and packaging in our stores.”

Last year, Target “recycled nearly 24 million pounds of plastic bags and plastic film materials.”

Walmart also emphasized its “in-store recycling bins for plastic bags” and said the y are “working with policy makers, waste management companies, non-profits and other retailers to reduce demand for single-use plastic bags.”

Walmart said it has removed over two billion single-use bags from circulation.

Neither retailer answered specifics on how trackers ended up in landfills.

Bonta said the investigation into the plastic bag manufacturers should be completed by late summer.

“Just try to avoid all these single-use plastics,” Dell urged.

Watch the full ABC News investigation: “Trashed: The Secret Life of Plastic Recycling” at 9:30 p.m. PST Tuesday tonight on the streaming platform ABC News Live and later on Hulu.