Plastic bags from Walmart US recycling bins tracked to controversial plastic facilities in Southeast Asia

An ABC News investigation offers a rare glimpse into the plastic waste trade.

Pua Lay Peng lives on the front lines of the global plastic pollution crisis. The 52-year-old's hometown of Jenjarom, Malaysia has been transformed in recent years by thousands of tons of imported plastic waste from the U.S. and other wealthy nations. As a result, the once quiet agricultural town she grew up in is now surrounded by dumpsites and smokestacks from plastic factories that she says pose dire health risks for her and her loved ones.

"We want to let people who send their waste to Malaysia know that we need your help," she told ABC News. "Your waste is harmful and threatens the health of my family, my children, and also destroys the future of my people, my generation."

Hidden among the tsunami of plastic waste America sent to Southeast Asia last year were three of the 19 tracking devices ABC News secured to plastic bags and dropped off at Walmart store recycling bins across the U.S. Two of those trackers ended up at plastic facilities outside of Port Klang, Malaysia, not far from Pua Lay Peng's hometown, while a third landed in Indonesia.

"No responsible waste company in the United States, no responsible local government should be exporting plastic waste to other countries," Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and current president of the anti-plastic pollution project Beyond Plastics, told ABC News. "It's causing real damage, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia," Enck said.

Probing the international plastic waste trade

Originally deployed as part of a groundbreaking investigation into America's plastic recycling system, these three trackers now offer a rare glimpse into the mysterious and controversial inner workings of the international plastic waste trade.

The investigation began more than 18 months ago, when ABC News and nine of its affiliated and owned stations secured 46 digital tracking devices to plastic bags and deployed them at Walmart and Target store drop-off recycling bins across 10 states. ABC News closely monitored the trackers for months and checked each facility they pinged from to ensure that the trackers likely had not been detected as contamination along their journey. Ultimately, the vast majority of trackers never pinged from a plastic bag recycling facility, with many ending up in landfills or incinerators.

Only four trackers last pinged from a U.S. facility that said it was involved in plastic bag recycling. However, subsequent public records requests and additional research have revealed that all four of these facilities likely either trashed the plastic bags in the U.S. or exported them abroad, though none of the facilities would divulge to ABC News specifically where the bags were sent.

Exporting plastic waste, particularly to poorer nations, is a controversial practice. Often decried by critics as "waste colonialism," the United Nations has described it as "highly prone to corruption," and the international community has tried to curb the trade through the 2019 Basel Convention's Amendments on Plastic Waste, which set strict regulations for international plastic waste shipments.

The U.S, however, one of the world's biggest plastic producers, is among five U.N.-recognized countries that refused to join the agreement and which continues to send plastic waste abroad with little oversight. Since 2020, more than 600,000 metric tons of plastic waste has been shipped from U.S. ports to countries around the world under the premise of "recycling," according to an ABC News analysis of data provided by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

A plastic bag's journey from New York to Indonesia

The first ABC News plastic bag tracker to travel overseas was dropped into a plastic bag recycling bin at a Walmart in Kingston, New York. It later pinged from a recycling facility in New Jersey known to export plastic waste abroad. The tracker then went dark for nearly three months, until it finally pinged more than 9,000 miles away, directly outside three affiliated plastic facilities in Batam, Indonesia. After that, it was never heard from again.

The plastic facilities near the location of ABC News' plastic bag tracker's last pings have been the subject of numerous controversies, according to local media reports. As of 2020, two of the facilities, were reportedly under investigation by Indonesian authorities for illegally dumping plastic-laden wastewater into the drainage ditches directly behind them. More recently, the facilities have been the subject of numerous reports regarding allegedly unsafe and exploitative labor conditions.

ABC News visited the ditches last month where the alleged dumping had occurred and found shredded plastic there coating countless leaves and blades of grass.

The Indonesian facilities did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

The Malaysia trackers

Two other plastic bag trackers deployed by ABC News last pinged from Malaysia, which has been among the top destinations for exported plastic waste ever since China banned the material in 2018.

"A lot of recyclers from China – they came here. And they found Malaysia is such a haven to run this illegal factory," Pua Lay Peng said.

Pua and her team at the Kuala Langat Environmental Action Association have extensive experience monitoring and filing complaints against polluting plastic facilities. Over the years, they've gotten hundreds of illegal recycling centers shut down, and have also received death threats.

"I decided to fight until death, okay?," she said. "If I don't stand up to fight, the consequences will allow my family members, my friends will be killed. Just a matter of time, okay? But if I stand up to fight, I have [a] chance then."

One of the ABC News trackers was originally deployed at a Walmart in Wichita, Kansas and last pinged from a plastics facility located directly beside the Langat River, not far from Pua Lay Peng's Malaysian hometown. The facility does not appear to have a license to import plastic waste, according to a 2023 list provided to ABC News by a Malaysian parliament member.

"I believe that the trackers that [were] put in by ABC is evidence of smuggling," said Pua Lay Peng. "They don't have an import permit but they're able to get waste from overseas."

A recent U.N. report on illegal waste trading in Southeast Asia says in part that "Missing licenses or permits, smuggling" and "lack of valid documentation" were among "the primary tactics for the illegal shipments." There's no way of knowing exactly how the ABC News tracker ended up at the facility, but Pua says there's reason for concern.

"This is a proof of what I worry, that this [is] actually happening, and it's quite serious," she said.

The Malaysian riverside plastics facility where the tracker pinged from manufactures plastic bags, sometimes using recycled content. Though the company advertises itself as a responsible corporation committed to protecting the environment, ABC News documented several discharge canals emanating from the facility that appear to be dumping plastic-laden wastewater directly into the adjacent Langat River.

"We used to see them discharge it every two days," Saravanan Kumar, whose family has been fishing along the Langat for generations, told ABC News. "Sometimes we can see it all, the plastics and everything. Lots of plastic floating around. It has obviously harmed the source of the food for the fish," he said.

Kumar says the facility's pollution has devastated the river that fishermen like him once depended on for their livelihood.

"It is sad because the life in the water died and we are now afraid to eat fish that used to be delicious. We are afraid that we may hurt our kids by eating it," he told ABC News.

"The river is broken. Indeed, there is nothing left here," Kumar said.

The facility did not respond to ABC News' repeated requests for comment.

Another tracker last pinged from a Malaysian plastics facility located in an urban area outside of Port Klang that does have an import license, according to the government list obtained by ABC News. However, Pua Lay Peng says even if a facility is properly licensed, it's still no guarantee against harmful pollution to her community, claiming Malaysia's government does not adequately monitor the factories or regularly enforce existing regulations to ensure harmful pollution does not occur.

"We have a broken system. We are not as capable as your people think that we can handle your waste," she told ABC News.

In response to ABC News reporting, the Malaysian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment wrote in a preliminary statement that they take "the illegal plastic waste trade issue raised by ABC News very seriously," and committed to "analyse and investigate" the information ABC News provided.

"Following the conclusion of the investigation, any misbehaviour will face severe consequences," they wrote.

Tracking the plastics highways of the high seas

Beyond contributing to plastics pollution, the act of shipping plastic waste itself is also a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. An ABC News analysis of shipping data provided by the trade analytics company S&P Global Market Intelligence estimates that the fuel used for the transportation of plastic waste alone has pumped more than 100,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere over the past three years.

That's the equivalent of the annual emissions of more than 23,000 passenger vehicles. It would take more than 1.7 million tree seedlings grown for 10 years to sequester that volume of emissions from the atmosphere.

"We need the cooperation of commercial shipping companies, because they can turn off the tap of these plastic exports," Judith Enck of Beyond Plastics told ABC News. Her group was among a chorus of environmental organizations that put out a call in 2021 for shipping companies to ban plastic waste exports.

Only one major shipping company, CMA-CGM, heeded that call with a voluntary public pledge to stop carrying plastic waste aboard their ships entirely, beginning in June 2022.

"We have 12 million tons of plastic waste floating around in the oceans," Peter Levesque, the former president of CMA-CGM North America, told ABC News. "So we have a problem. And the question was, are we enabling that problem in any way? And the answer was: possibly," Levesque said.

Despite the ban, however, shipping data provided to ABC News by S&P Global Market Intelligence shows that, since their pledge to stop, CMA-CGM has transported hundreds of shipments carrying thousands of tons of material that S&P identified as plastic waste.

"That's something we'd have to look into," Levesque said when ABC News provided him the data. "There's no physical inspection of what's inside the container unless customs happens to hold it up for some reason. So there is a level of trust that's there and there's a level of documentation that has to be trusted."

CMA-CGM later told ABC News that nearly all the shipments marked as plastic waste by S&P Global Market Intelligence were coded by their customers in CMA-CGM's internal booking system as items other than plastic waste. S&P Global Market Intelligence analyzes raw descriptions pulled from customs authorities to assign a code.

After speaking with multiple experts and closely reviewing the S&P data, ABC News found some of CMA-CGM's customers or their agents may be misleading the company, and that it likely transported at least 350 shipments of plastic waste in the 18 months since their pledge to stop. Most of those shipments went to Malaysia.

After cross-referencing the times and locations provided by two of our plastic bag trackers, an ABC News analysis determined that it was highly likely that the two trackers were among those shipments.

Still, the data does show a significant drop in CMA-CGM's plastic waste shipments compared to before their pledge, but it's still far from the total stoppage the company promised in promotional materials.

CMA-CGM declined to comment on the ABC News analysis, but has promised in the past that any misdeclarations regarding its plastic waste ban "will lead to a blacklisting of the incriminated entity."

A U.N. report released this month on the waste trade found a pattern of waste exporters lying to shipping companies about the items being shipped, in order to bypass regulations, compounded by governments often turning a blind eye to the issue and allowing plastic waste to be smuggled into countries that have lax border enforcement.

Seeking answers from America's largest retailer

Despite months of attempting to arrange an interview with a Walmart representative for this report, the company declined. However, when approached at the Reuter's Responsible Business U.S.A. Conference, a gathering of senior leaders from some of America's largest corporations, Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart's chief sustainability officer, told ABC News that "if you want to get into it, I'm happy to meet with you and go through what we're doing."

After setting a date to be interviewed, however, the company canceled and declined to answer any questions in writing. Walmart instead delivered the following statement:

"We strive to do the right thing, and while our bag recycling program isn't perfect, it does provide access to recycling for millions of customers across the country. The companies we contract with report that the overwhelming majority of the mixed recycling materials we provide (including thousands of tons of plastic bags) are fit to be recycled and by contract sent on for that purpose, though contaminated materials cannot be recycled (for example, ABC's trackers could themselves be considered bag contaminants)."

"We have high expectations of the companies we contract with and are committed to continuously improving our recycling and waste reduction programs," the statement continued. "For example, last year we negotiated enhanced contracts that explicitly require these companies to ensure and prove that eligible materials collected through our program are recycled to the maximum extent practicable."

Kate Holland, Jared Kofsky, Alex Myers and Seiji Yamashita, as well as ABC affiliate stations KAKE, WFTV and WLS, contributed to this report.