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

ByMatt Gutman, Evan Simon, Cho Park, Tonya Simpson, Jon Schlosberg, Tommy Brooksbank and Mark Nichols ABCNews logo
Wednesday, April 24, 2024
Plastic bags from Walmart US recycling bins tracked to facilities in Southeast Asia
Plastic bags from Walmart US recycling bins tracked to facilities in Southeast Asia

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.