Are your plastic bags getting recycled?

ORLANDO, Fla. — Do your grocery bags really get recycled?


In a nationwide investigation, 9 Investigates dropped dozens of AirTags outside grocery stores to find out if those stores are doing what they say they are doing -- recycling your bags.

The average American family brings home 1,500 plastic bags per year, and 100 billion plastic grocery bags are thrown away annually nationwide.

Grocery stores all over the United States have recycling bins outside their store to try to get you to recyle.

Some people told 9 Investigates that they don’t use them, because they don’t believe the stores really recycle.

Read: Woman turns in bag filled with nearly $15K she found while walking to work

We set out to find out if that was the case by putting AirTags in bags and dropped them off to grocery store recycling bins.

For months, we have been tracking the AirTags to see where they ended up.

Eight trackers were placed in bags at stores across Central Florida.

After months of tracking, we found that some trackers didn’t make it to the recycling center.

One began its journey at the Winn-Dixie store in Sanford on Feb. 13, and by Feb. 16, it was at a transfer station in Seminole County.

The transfer station sorts and recycles cardboard, paint and shoes. But what doesn’t get recycled there are plastic bags.

“The only reason they really should end up in this facility is if they were put in the regular trash and just thrown out with the normal garbage,” Waste Division Manager Oliver Bond told 9 Investigates. “And they don’t want them saying, ‘What happens with those plastic bags is they clog up those mechanisms.’”

So how did our AirTag wind up there? And why did another one from a Brevard County Winn-Dixie store wind up at a landfill in southern Brevard County instead of a recycling center?

A Winn-Dixie spokesman told 9 Investigates that it happens when there is contamination, such as liquids poured into the container.

“Our stores and distribution centers have recycled nearly 1 million pounds of plastics through March of this year and on average recycle more than 3.5 million pounds each year,” the spokesman said.

Another AirTag we put in a Sprouts store in Orlando is sitting at its distribution center.

Sprouts’ manager of sustainability Justin Kacer told us, “All of our bags are collected in our stores. They’re back called to our distribution centers where they’re consolidated.”

He added that, “It’s compacted and bailed and then loaded onto a trailer. That plastic is actually taken over to Texas to a recycling facility, where it’s pelletized and kind of sold on the market to be used as recycled content for other products or bags -- whatever the market might need.”

As for the two tags we dropped at Publix, both went to recycling centers -- one in Houston and one in Virgina.

Publix spokeswoman Hannah Herring told us that last year, Publix kept over 763 million pounds of material out of the landfill.

Of that, about 21 million pounds was plastics, including the plastic bags.

Much of that made into pellets and that is used to make things like plastic tables.

We spoke with Dustin Olson, who is the CEO of Orlando-based Pure Cycle Technologies.

His company doesn’t handle plastic bags but said we all need to do a better job because plastic can be used over and over again.

“It can be reused forever,” he said. “We’re not doing a good enough job managing the end of life. If we manage the end of life for plastic better, it becomes a true circular resource.”

In all, between WFTV Channel 9 and other ABC stations, 46 AirTags were deployed.

Twenty-three of them ended up at landfills or garbage incinerators.

One of our trackers we dropped off at a local Walmart store ended up in Malaysia, where it still sits today.

Walmart issued a statement to ABC News, saying in part that it “has helped remove more than 2 billion single-use bags from circulation and is working to shift to more sustainable choices.”

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Shannon Butler

Shannon Butler, WFTV.com

Shannon joined the Eyewitness News team in 2013.