Plastic recycling directory ends, citing lack of 'real commitment from industry'

The directory listed sites to drop off plastics for recycling.

December 4, 2023, 12:45 PM

After 20 years of operation, a national online recycling directory for plastic bags and plastic films has been taken offline, six months after an ABC News investigation.

The Film Drop-Off Directory, once found at BagandFilmRecycling.org, previously directed the public to more than 18,000 store drop-off locations around the country, where they could bring used plastic bags and film to be recycled. Visitors to the site today are greeted with a message informing them that "the resource is no longer available."

"Continuing to offer a resource without real commitment from the industry and seeing how many organizations were willing to backfill without any integrity of how they are going to maintain data, I just couldn't be a part of it anymore," Nina Bellucci Butler, CEO of Stina Inc., which manages the directory, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Screenshot of BagandFilmRecycling.org's drop-off directory page before the site was taken offline.
Screenshot of BagandFilmRecycling.org's drop-off directory page before the site was taken offline.
BagandFilmRecycling.org

Butler said that the decision to take the site down was partially due to a lack of the funding required to "maintain credible information" on the site, but was also driven by a desire to clear the air about plastic recycling in general.

"There's more of an illusion of stuff getting recycled than there actually is because there is an imbalance in supply and demand," Butler said, referring to how virgin plastic is often far cheaper to produce than recycled plastic. "We were not funded to administer and service to the degree that we think is important to maintain credible information but even if we had funding right now, I don't think there is enough commitment from industry to really address the supply and demand imbalance."

Initially funded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) as part of their Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP), the Film Drop-Off Directory included many of the nation's biggest retailers and was promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as linked to by local and state governments across the country as a viable means to recycle plastic bags and plastic film. The directory had been self-funded for "nearly a year" before closing down Nov. 17, according to Butler.

PHOTO: ABC News and ABC stations assembled bundles of recyclable plastic bags, each containing a metal tracking device super glued inside, then wrapped in several layers of bags, to determine if they are recycled.
ABC News and ABC stations assembled bundles of recyclable plastic bags, each containing a metal tracking device super glued inside, then wrapped in several layers of bags, to determine if they are recycled.
ABC News

In May, an ABC News investigation using digital tracking devices revealed that plastics bags dropped off at many Walmart and Target stores listed on the directory were instead sent to landfills, incinerators and other waste facilities that play no role in recycling plastic bags or film.

Of the 46 trackers ABC News and nine ABC-owned stations and affiliates secured to bundles of "recyclable" plastic bags and dropped off at Walmart and Target stores across the country, the vast majority – after months of tracking – had not ended up at locations associated with plastic bag recycling. Half the trackers launched last pinged at landfills or trash incinerators, while seven stopped pinging at transfer stations that do not recycle, sort, or transfer plastic bags to recycling facilities, and six last pinged at the store where they were dropped off and hadn't been heard from in months.

The locations of three other trackers in the U.S. were inconclusive, while a further three trackers last pinged thousands of miles overseas – in Asia. By May, 2023, only four of ABC's 46 trackers last pinged from U.S. facilities that say they are involved with recycling plastic bags.

In response to the investigation's findings, Stina Inc. told ABC News hours before the investigation originally aired in May that they had "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." Both retail giants remained off the directory until it was taken offline last month.

"I welcomed the coverage because we value truth," Butler told ABC News of the investigation.

PHOTO: Some of the plastic bag trackers placed by ABC in store recycling bins later pinged from incinerators, with one registering from the Wheelabrator facility in Peekskill, New York.
Some of the plastic bag trackers placed by ABC in store recycling bins later pinged from incinerators, with one registering from the Wheelabrator facility in Peekskill, New York.
ABC News

Asked whether the ABC News investigation influenced their decision to take the directory offline, Butler said it played a part in calling the problems to Stina's attention, but in combination with larger issues.

"One of the biggest obstacles or challenges right now to moving real environmental progress is we are awash in greenwashing," Butler said, referring to the practice of some organizations of marketing themselves as environmentally conscious, but doing little to nothing in practice to that end. "And it's getting so much worse."

Walmart and Target both declined ABC News' interview requests at the time, as well as requests to see what happens at their stores to plastic bags that they collect for recycling. Walmart issued a statement at the time that read in part that they were "pursuing initiatives to reduce the use of single-use plastic including plastic bags." Target also issued a statement, writing that they "take seriously the role we play in reducing waste," and were "committed to looking at our processes to improve our recycling efforts."

When asked to comment on the online removal of the Film Drop-Off Directory website, Target referred ABC News to their previous statement from May. Walmart did not respond by time of publication.

The American Chemistry Council WRAP program, which initially funded and widely promoted the Film Drop-Off Directory, has also gone offline since the investigation aired. ACC's then-Vice President of Plastics, Joshua Baca, told ABC News in an interview at the time that the store drop-off concept for plastic bag recycling "doesn't work to the scale that we want," and the industry trade group was investing in other ways to increase plastic recycling rates.

"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.

PHOTO: Drop-off bin in New Jersey to recycle plastic bags.
Drop-off bin in New Jersey to recycle plastic bags.
ABC News

"We're putting our money where our mouth is," he added, claiming the council has invested $8 billion to date in various types of recycling technologies.

The ACC declined an ABC News request to comment on the Film Drop-Off Directory and WRAP going offline last month.

The EPA continued to link to the defunct WRAP website until ABC News alerted the agency to the issue on December 1st. An agency representative later said they had "updated our webpages accordingly" following ABC News' notification.

"EPA has a long history of providing data, tools, information, and other resources to support recycling in the United States. We frequently rely on directories produced by third parties to provide information to the public about where they can drop off materials for recycling," the agency wrote to ABC News, in part. "Recently, we have been actively working to develop strategies that improve recycling and prevent plastic pollution."

ABC News' Cho Park, Matt Gutman, Tonya Simpson, Jon Schlosberg, Seiji Yamashita, and Tommy Brooksbank also contributed to this report.

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