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Blue bags not only thing missing in recycling program

That Tuolumne County is running out of blue recycling bags just as its new solid waste manager, Gretchen Olsen, is coming on board may be more than just coincidence.

Maybe it's a not-so-subtle signal that the 10-year-old blue-bag program has seen it's best days and is ready for replacement with something more efficient and cost effective.

There's no doubt those free, county-certified blue bags are popular: Last fiscal year 178,158 of them were collected from county curbsides at no cost to customers. That's 3,226 a week — enough to make any bag shortage sorely felt by regular users.

Still, what happens after the mixed recyclables — glass, plastic, tin, aluminum and paper can be thrown together — are bagged and put next to their cans on the curb is a mystery to most customers.

The very first thing that happens may disconcert more than a few: Crews throw the blue bags in the back of the truck with the rest of the trash and head for the transfer station in Mono Village.

So why bother to separate out the recyclables in the first place, many may ask, if they're just going to be thrown back in with the rest of the trash?

The answer comes in Mono Village, where tons of household trash is dumped on the floor with blue bags that, for the most part, remain intact. Under the plan, recycling bags are fished from the mess before the rest of the garbage is hauled to the huge Forward Landfill in San Joaquin County.

Blue bag contents then go to the transfer station's sorting lines, where they are segregated and bailed for shipment.

The blue bags, Olsen has learned, are part of a successful county recycling program that now diverts 57 percent of trash (the state requires 50 percent) that would otherwise clog landfills. Still, household recyclables account for less than half the amount diverted. Much more, it turns out, is slash burned at the Pacific Ultrapower incinerator at Chinese Camp.

So is the decade-old blue bag program still the most effective way to recycle?

Yes, it is convenient for customers. But are all those bagged recyclables really recovered? Or are many bags, as some claim, simply scooped up with everything else and hauled to the San Joaquin landfill? Do some customers stuff their blue bags with ordinary trash and hope collectors throw it in the trucks for free? Do others with extra room in their cans, simply cram bottles, plastic and paper in with their household trash? And what about recyclables in clear or green bags? Are they sorted?

Then what of the 65,000 blue bags that were given out to Tuolumne County customers last year, but never recovered at the transfer station? What became of them?

Would a two-truck system, in which recyclables are picked up separately and sorted apart from other trash, work better?

Although she says Tuolumne County won't run out of blue bags and that a new order is on the way, Gretchen Olsen — who began work Monday — promises to reevaluate the recycling program with an eye to improving it. That she comes from Washington state, where high-level recycling has become state of the art, makes her uniquely qualified to do so.

But recycling is hardly the only issue confronting Olsen, who takes over the county's solid waste division after a 14-month leadership vacuum that followed Mark Rappaport's departure in August of last year. A sampling of goals that should be on her to-do list:

• Closing the old Jamestown landfill once and for all, thus putting an end to engineers,' consultants' and contractors' bills that have risen into the many millions of dollars.

• Finding an answer, perhaps through mandatory collection, to one of the county's most serious problems: the indiscriminate and epidemic dumping of trash in our canyons and in our creeks.

• Studying alternatives to our current waste disposal system — shipping trash to regional landfills elsewhere — with an eye toward a cheaper, more efficient long-term solution.

Welcome to Tuolumne County Ms. Olsen!

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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