Of the 15 trackers she placed on plastic bag drop-off locations at retailers, 11 ended up in landfills or waste transfer stations and another went to an incinerator. A couple were last heard from in Mexico, and one ended up at the Port of Los Angeles, where Dell speculates it was likely going to be exported to Asia.
"No surprise to me this stuff is getting trashed. This hoax has been going on for 30 years," Dell said.
Today's availability and affordability of trackers such as the Apple AirTag and Tile has Dell thinking there will be more efforts to monitor plastic recycling using the technology. It's the kind of story that catches people's attention. Reuters reporters also used trackers to follow running shoes dropped off for recycling earlier this year.
"I think people love a good tracker story. I'm fascinated by it. For decades there has been no transparency on waste, on where this stuff goes. These trackers finally pull back the curtain," she said.
"If we are going to make progress on plastic pollution, we really need transparency," Dell said. "I did my own because I've been trying to fight for truth and transparency about what's really happening.
"Consumers are being fooled," she added.
Dell said store drop-off bins are a "massive greenwashing scheme to make flexible plastics seem recyclable."
Joshua Baca is vice president of the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council and was interviewed by ABC News as part of the story.
When asked for comment about the ABC News report by Plastics News, ACC provided a statement attributed to Baca.
"Our world will only get to a sustainable circular economy by collaborating and coming together to achieve the economies of scale necessary to convert what today is waste into new products. This cannot be accomplished unless we are willing to engage in open dialogue and listen to both concerns and solutions. ACC remains committed to providing real solutions that will reduce plastic waste," the statement reads in part.
Baca, during his television interview, provided some additional comments.
"Our view is pretty simple. We view store drop off, whether it's Walmart or Target or your local grocery store, as the bridge to consumers," Baca told ABC News. But he also said during the show: "It doesn't work to the scale that we want. I think I've been very clear about that."
Publicity surrounding the placement of trackers led to the apparent removal of Walmart and Target locations from a national directory of store drop-off locations for flexible films, ABC News said.
The online list is managed by plastic recycling research and technology firm Stina, where Nina Bellucci Butler is CEO.
She confirmed both Walmart and Target locations are no longer being listed.
"For the integrity of the directory, we must remove locations for which we receive information suggesting material is disposed rather than recycled until we receive information confirming otherwise. We look forward to reactivating Target and Walmart store locations so that we may continue to help more people recycle their household clean, dry polyethylene film (bread bags, overwrap, etc.) and reduce plastic waste," Butler said in an email exchange.
While Stina currently maintains the directory, which started in 2003 in California and expanded nationally in 2007, the firm does not currently receive any outside funding to help with the project.
"Our goal is to provide accurate information to the public so they can handle material responsibly. Unfortunately, we are not currently funded to maintain the directory. We would like to do a comprehensive update of the directory and celebrate the stores that are offering bins, with good signage and getting the material to reclaimers for recycling," Butler said.
The Association of Plastic Recyclers, a trade group that calls itself the Voice of Plastic Recycling and is commonly out front on many plastic recycling issues, declined to comment on results of the news report.
Walmart had this to say: "Walmart offers in-store recycling bins for plastic bags as an option for customers who may not have access to curbside recycling. Our overarching goal is to reduce plastic bag waste. We are doing this by working to address challenges, such as contamination, to ensure maximum recycling of collected materials, while also pursuing initiatives to reduce the use of single-use plastic including plastic bags," a statement reads.
"For example, by eliminating single use shopping bags across Canada, Mexico and 10 states in the U.S., Walmart expects to prevent up to 2 billion single use bags from circulation annually while we work across our omnichannel network to continue shifting to more sustainable choices."
And Target had similar comments: "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," Target officials added.