Tracking Curbside Recycling: Where Does It Really Go?

Investigating the journey of recyclable materials from curb to destination

Curbside recycling has become a common practice in many households, with millions of families participating in recycling programs across the country. But amidst the growing concern about the fate of recyclable materials, questions have arisen about whether these items are truly being recycled or simply ending up in landfills. In response to these concerns, 13 Investigates embarked on an undercover investigation, working with local families to track their curbside recycling and uncover the truth about where these materials go.

How we tracked the recycling

To shed light on the journey of curbside recycling, 13 Investigates employed both undercover surveillance and technology. Electronic tracking devices were placed inside plastic bottles, which were then placed in the families’ curbside recycling bins. These devices, equipped with GPS and Wi-Fi technology, allowed for remote tracking of the recyclable materials from the moment they were picked up by recycle trucks. Undercover cameras and drones were also used to document the journey of the recycled materials and ensure the accuracy of the tracking data.

Following Republic Services

One family, the Bradshaws, participated in the investigation by placing a tracker in their recycle bin. As the Republic Services truck picked up their recycling, 13News followed behind, tracking the truck’s route. After nearly 90 minutes of surveillance, the truck arrived at a large property owned by Republic Services, which housed a materials recovery facility (MRF) and a transfer station. The entire load of recycling was dumped inside the MRF, where it was later observed being processed and sorted. Similar findings were observed with another Republic recycling truck, providing reassurance that Republic customers’ recycling is indeed being processed as promised.

Following Waste Management

Another family, the Griffins, participated in the investigation to track their recycling collected by Waste Management. The tracker placed in their recycle bin revealed that their recycling ended up at Waste Management’s primary recycling processing center in Indianapolis. The investigation also tracked a Waste Management truck that collected recycling from various homes and observed the materials being dumped at the same recycling facility. These findings confirmed that Waste Management’s curbside recycling is being processed at their recycling center.

What happens inside the recycling centers

To gain further insight into the recycling process, 13 Investigates toured both the Republic and Waste Management recycling centers. The recycling materials are first dumped onto the floor of the facility and then sorted using a series of conveyer belts and optical sorters. Large pieces of cardboard are separated, while plastic, glass, and paper fall through holes to be sorted further. The different materials are then baled and shipped off to other companies to be made into new products.

“Um, you can’t recycle that!”

Unfortunately, a significant amount of material that ends up in recycling bins cannot actually be recycled. Items such as bowling balls, rolls of carpets, and garden hoses pose risks to the sorting equipment and workers. These non-recyclable items, along with contamination from incorrect recycling, account for up to 30% of the materials collected by recycling companies. It is crucial for individuals to be aware of what can and cannot be recycled to ensure the success of the recycling process.

“Why is that recycling truck pulling into a landfill?”

In an unexpected turn of events, tracking the recycling of one participant, Debbie Horn, led to the Waste Management landfill in Morristown. However, the investigation revealed that the truck did not actually dump the recycling materials at the landfill. Instead, it made a U-turn and drove to a nearby Waste Management transfer station, where the contents of the recycle truck were dumped. Two days later, the materials from the transfer station were observed being processed at Waste Management’s recycling facility in Indianapolis. This finding demonstrated that Waste Management has a vested interest in recycling materials rather than sending them to a landfill.


The investigation conducted by 13 Investigates provides valuable insights into the journey of curbside recycling. By utilizing undercover surveillance and technology, the investigation confirms that the majority of recyclable materials collected by Republic Services and Waste Management are indeed being processed and recycled. However, it also highlights the importance of proper recycling practices and the need to educate individuals about what can and cannot be recycled. With this knowledge, individuals can make informed choices and contribute to a more sustainable future.