WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) - When we drop something into a recycling bin, we think we're doing something good for our environment as well as our community.  But are we?

Some environmental groups are raising questions about just how much of the stuff we drop into recycling bins actually ends up being recycled. KAKE Investigator Pilar Pedraza teamed up with ABC News and stations all over the country to find out.

Each station in the collaboration did a part of the investigation, which concentrated specifically on single-use plastic bags, some of the hardest plastic to recycle. Big box stores and major chains say they're doing exactly that, but our investigation showed that often, their efforts are more of a miss than a hit: and those bags often end up everywhere around the city.

"Everything comes in plastic bags now," said Lori Lawrence, a plastic bag recycler. "Not having bags here would make a huge difference in our waterways, in our trees... I mean, you find plastic bags everywhere."

Lawrence was part of the City of Wichita's Plastic Bag Taskforce, looking for ways to clean up the plastic litter flying around town. Though the group has now been disbanded, with no action from the city, she's still hopeful for change. 


"We just had a meeting with a couple of council members to see what we need to do next," she said.

Lawrence doesn't, however, see recycling as a useful tool for ridding out city of this trash. 

"Nobody seems to know where things go, and I figured they probably didn't go where we've been told they went," she admitted.

We wanted to find out, so we teamed up with ABC News and eight other local affiliates around the country. Our plan involved using G-P-S trackers planted inside plastic bags to see what happens to the plastic bags we drop off at big box stores such as Target and Walmart.

Using Gorilla Glue to make sure the tracking devices couldn't come loose, we then wrapped plastic bags within plastic bags, tying each one tightly just to be sure. We dropped off bags at four stores around the city: two Targets and two Walmarts, one each on the west side and east side of Wichita. 

Then we waited.

Former EPA administrator Judith Enck talked with ABC about how recycling is supposed to work.

"Theoretically," Enck said, "people should be able to drop off their film plastic and the bin itself is supposed to be well marked.

There are a lot of companies that put the iconic three arrow recycling logo on plastic bags and other products knowing full well that that material will never get recycled. It's often deceptive and misleading advertising. The Federal Trade Commission should prohibit that kind of labeling."

KAKE News found that each store had an easy-to-locate recycling bin, though in one case, there was other garbage in with the plastic bags. 

Out of four trackers, two were indeed recorded near a landfill in Harper County. One was last reported at the Waste Connections transfer station in North Wichita and one was last recorded in Malaysia.

The two trackers dropped off at Walmarts, 21st and Maize Rd and Greenwich and Kellogg, and went first to International Paper Recycling. When we toured that facility for an Earth Day story on recycling last month, the plant manager, Cesar Mendoza, told us that they do handle plastic bags.

"The plastic bags (in that far corner) are grocery bags that come from large retailers in the city, and they do a good job of gathering them," Mendoza said.

International Paper doesn't do the actual recycling.

"We help them find a market for these materials," he said. He went on to add that International Paper is kind of a conduit. They do not sort the plastic; it comes to them already separated.

From there, one tracker moved up the turnpike to Kansas City, and on to east to Chesapeake, Virginia, before finally ending up just a few days ago in Port Klang, Malaysia.

The second tracker passed through the Waste Connections transfer station in Wichita, then headed down K-42 to Harper County and the area of Plumb Thicket Landfill. As for the two trackers, we dropped them off at the area Target Stores (Maple and Ridge and 21st and Greenwich), one went straight to the same Harper County location near the Plumb Thicket Landfill.

The other? We last tracked it at the Waste Connections transfer station.

KAKE News tried to speak with Waste Connections to find out if there are any recycling or sorting operations at that facility but got no answer from their communication department, so we called the main operator who told us they just collect the recyclables. 

The recycling happens at what may be Kansas' only materials recycling facility, or MRF, formerly known as Stutzmans, but now owned by Waste Connections.

The plant manager told KAKE News via phone that they do not recycle any plastic bags there. The bags just muck up the robotic equipment they use to sort and process the recyclables.

Lori Lawrence says that's what she saw, too, when the plastic bag task force toured the facility.

"It just gums everything up. But it's also a nightmare to deal with. Because... he called it 'turbulence'. It just flies everywhere. So it makes it 10 times harder to recycle than anything," Lawrence said.

As for where we tracked the plastic bags for recycling, Lori wasn't that surprised.

"That's kind of what I suspected," she said. "It's a great marketing tool for Walmart and Target to say that they're going to recycle bags when they're actually not."

ABC reached out to Walmart and Target, asking to interview them about our results and those from the other participating stations. Both declined, just sending written statements.

Walmart Statement:

"Walmart offers in-store recycling bins for plastic bags as an option for customers who may not have access to curbside recycling. We are also pursuing initiatives to reduce the use of single-use plastic including plastic bags, and working with policy makers, waste management companies, non-profits and other retailers to reduce demand for single-use plastic bags. To date, Walmart has helped remove over 2 billion single use bags from circulation and we are working across our omnichannel network to continue shifting to more sustainable choices."


Target Statement:

"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."


So what should people do if they have plastic bags they'd like to recycle?

"I would say to go to Dillons because I know that those go to Trex and that they're made into porch decking that people can purchase.  So we know that those are being reused. And I know that people at Dillon's have done a lot of research to make sure that's what happens," Lawrence said.

KAKE News Investigates wasn't the only group to have a GPS tracker end up in Malaysia, or elsewhere overseas. 

To find out what happened to the rest of the 46 total trackers, if any of our plastic bags actually got recycled, and the changes already happening because of this collaborative investigation, you can stream the full ABC News investigation, Trashed: The Secret Life of Plastic Recycling, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Central Time/8:30 pm Eastern Time on ABC News Live and later on Hulu