For more than a decade, Courtney Williams and her family have lived in the shadow of the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy incinerator, located along the Hudson River in Peekskill, New York.
"We go outside, we open the door, and the … kind of burning plastic smell hits us," Williams told ABC News.
A low income and mostly minority community, the city is also around a decommissioned nuclear power plant, a sewage disposal facility and multiple chemical plants.
Despite loving the people and riverside culture in Peekskill, living beside so many sources of pollution has often led Williams to second guess her decision to move her family there.
"My biggest regret is buying this house and moving to this community because I worry what risk I put my children in," Williams said, alluding to recent state health reports showing Peekskill has higher asthma rates and hospitalizations than the rest of the state and surrounding Westchester County.
She says her concerns only deepened after it was revealed to her that a tracking device ABC News attached to a plastic bag intended for recycling last pinged at the trash incinerator near her home.
"It makes me furious," Williams said. "Companies that are supposed to be properly disposing of this stuff are exacerbating these conditions and making it worse for my community."
The tracker was one of dozens ABC News deployed at retailers across 10 states in collaboration with nine ABC owned stations and affiliates as part of the largest investigation of its kind into the effectiveness of America's recycling streams for plastic bags.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade association that represents plastic manufacturers and other companies, has promoted the Wrap Recycling Action Program, or WRAP, to urge the public to recycle plastic bags – one of the top sources of plastic pollution worldwide – at nearly 18,000 drop-off locations nationwide, including many Walmart and Target locations.
Plastic is difficult and expensive to recycle to begin with and bags are even more so because they can get ensnared in equipment at most recycling centers – causing costly delays.
The WRAP Program and store drop-off concept were meant to provide a way to help reduce plastic waste by collecting plastic bags through retail and grocery stores to facilitate their collection for recycling.
"We want to make it easy, simple, and convenient for consumers, so that they can do the right thing that they want to do, which is recycle more products," said Joshua Baca, the vice president of American Chemistry Council's Plastics Division.
Yet of the 46 trackers placed in bundles of plastic bags that ABC News dropped off at stores across the country, the vast majority – after months – had not ended up at locations associated with plastic bag recycling.
"I think if a lot of people really made the connection between what they put in the recycle bin, what they put in the garbage and the fact that they're going to breathe it, we'd have folks paying a lot closer attention," Williams said. "It's not enough for you to put your recyclables in the recycling bin."
From bins for plastic to landfills and incinerators
After dropping off the plastic bags with trackers in bins specifically labeled for plastic bag recycling at Walmart and Target locations, ABC News and its collaborating stations monitored each tracker's location multiple times a day for months. The trackers pinged whenever they were near a compatible digital or mobile device.
The trackers were super glued and wrapped inside multiple layers of clean plastic bags. ABC News checked every location the trackers pinged from on their journey and determined that they likely did not encounter plastic bag sorting en route that could have potentially separated a tracker from a bag.
One of the first trackers to move was one deployed at a Target store in Kingston, New York, in December 2022. It showed up about a week later deep inside the Seneca Meadows Landfill in Waterloo, New York — as we deployed additional trackers over the next couple months, many other trackers also made their way to landfills.
Fast forward to May 2023, and half the trackers launched last pinged at landfills or trash incinerators; seven stopped pinging at transfer stations that do not recycle or sort plastic bags, and six last pinged at the store where they were dropped off and haven't been heard from in months, while the locations of three other trackers in the U.S. were inconclusive.
Three other trackers last pinged thousands of miles overseas – in Asia.
"No responsible waste company in the United States, no responsible local government should be exporting plastic waste to other countries," Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator, told ABC News.
One tracker dropped off at a New York Walmart last pinged in Indonesia, and other trackers dropped off at one Walmart location in Florida and another Walmart in Kansas last pinged in Malaysia – places known to be struggling with plastic waste imports from around the world.
"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.
In all, only four of ABC's trackers last pinged from U.S. facilities that say they are involved with recycling plastic bags.
Asked what he thought of ABC's findings, Baca said, "I don't know all of the logistics that went on to make that a reality or not. But here is the point that I can defend: Plastic film today, in particular, is designed to be recyclable. Is it being recycled at a rate that is sufficient? The answer's 'no.'"
Baca admitted the store drop-off concept for plastic bag recycling "doesn't work to the scale that we want." The American Chemistry Council tells ABC News its position on best ways to recycle plastic has been evolving -- the industry will change course – renewing its push for adapting curbside recycling for plastic bags – an issue WRAP was originally designed to provide an alternative for.
"We made a commitment a handful of years ago that says, "100% of the plastic packaging we make by 2030 will be recyclable or recoverable," Baca said. "We're putting our money where our mouth is," he added, claiming the council has invested $8 billion to date on various types of recycling technologies.
'I think we have to be honest'
The tracker result is no surprise to those familiar with the plastic recycling industry.
Across the globe, less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled, according to the most recent data from 2018 published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Erin Simon, the head of Plastic Waste and Business at environmental advocacy group World Wildlife Fund, told ABC News there are various efforts across the country to reduce plastic waste, but what is needed is more transparency in the system.
"I think we have to be honest about what they can and cannot do because that transparency is going to help us improve those programs," Simon said. "Not being transparent about it is only going to lead to more distrust in the system."
A part of that distrust, critics say, comes from the fact that some of the most vocal advocates of plastic recycling are the same deep-pocketed plastic industry stakeholders that aggressively fight against restrictions on the production and use of plastic.
And the American Chemistry Council is at the forefront of both efforts.
The council not only aggressively lobbies Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to challenge plastic restrictions at the federal level, but has also supported lobbying efforts against local bag bans. Last year, the American Chemistry Council also teamed up with the big oil industry to steer an international treaty discussion away from plastic production restrictions, according to a Reuters report.
Walmart and Target, some of the biggest retail partners WRAP promoted, both declined ABC News' interview requests as well as requests to see what happens at their stores to plastic bags they collect for recycling. Instead they issued the below statements:
"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," Walmart said in a statement to ABC News.
Target stated, "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."
After learning about ABC News' observations from the trackers, the research company that manages the online directory of the 18,000 recycling drop-off locations promoted by WRAP told ABC News hours before the publication of this report that they "removed" all Walmart and Target locations from its list "until they can confirm that their store drop-off film and bag material is being recycled rather than landfilled or incinerated."
Target did not provide additional comment on this development and Walmart did not respond in time for publication.
As the plastics industry continues to thrive, with the United Nations expecting production to double by 2040, dozens of experts, stakeholders and industry insiders throughout the recycling process tell ABC News that the current plastic recycling system does not seem to be working.
"We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis," Enck said, stressing the need for restrictions on plastic production and use.
And as long as new plastic remains cheaper than recycled plastics, experts say the vast majority of plastics we use will continue to end up in landfills and incinerators.
Back in Peekskill, the smokestack of the Wheelabrator incinerator where one of ABC's plastic bag trackers last pinged is still a prominent sight that Courtney Williams' children can see from their bedroom. The facility's operating contract is not expected to expire for another six years.
"If instead of recycling, they burn it there, then what happens?" Williams asked her son, who turned 11 on Tuesday.
"We breathe it in," he said.
Sara Avery, Charlotte Greer, Patrick Linehan and Kate Holland contributed to this report.