QUESTION: What happens to the recycling that gets picked up curbside by Burns Refuse? Is it picked up by a separate truck than the garbage truck? (I've only seen one truck.) And as for the large mixed recycling dumpster bins at the Recycling Center, does that material actually get sorted at its destination, or does it end up in a landfill somewhere? Basically, just how effective is the recycling system in Sonora?

ANSWER: Stacy Burns, secretary at Burns Refuse, said recycling is picked up separately by a recycling truck and taken to the Cal Sierra transfer station, operated by Waste Management on Industrial Drive. From there, a truck takes the recycling to be sorted at a Waste Management facility in Lodi.

That's the easy answer. The truth is recycling is not so easy. And it begins with customers making the right choices about what they put in their recycling cart.

“You'd be surprised at some of the stuff people throw out in recycling,” said Joe Cadelago, a Waste Management public sector manager.

Like dirty diapers. Or bowling balls. Old furniture. Propane tanks. Hot coals from fires. That last item has been known to set the stuff inside the truck on fire, resulting in the driver having to stop and dump the load in the street to put out the blaze. Not often and never to the point of a truck blowing up.

Still.

When something like dirty diapers or hazardous waste like paint get inside the truck, it contaminates the whole load, which results in everything in there going to the landfill.

In the garbage biz they call this stuff residual, and in Tuolumne County in 2017, 27 percent of everything put in the recycling bins did not belong there.

Cadelago said they would like the number to be between 10 and 15 percent, but there are a lot of California counties with worse numbers than Tuolumne County's.

Contamination is a nationwide problem and one of the biggest hurdles to California reaching its goal of recycling 75 percent of all waste by 2020. (State law used to say each county must recycle 50 percent, but legislators backed off on that one.)

On Thursday, Cadelago did not have the overall percentage of garbage recycled last year for Tuolumne County.

Here's what belongs in the recycling can:

If you live in Sonora: aluminum and tin, glass, plastic beverage containers, newspapers, cardboard, office paper, magazines, telephone books, chipboard, corrugated egg cartons, glass jars and beverage containers.

In Tuolumne County, you can throw in aluminum cans and containers, clean cardboard, glass bottles, jars and containers, newspaper, clean paper bags (all colors), catalogs, chipboard or paperboard boxes (cereal, cracker, shoe boxes, computer paper, construction paper, egg cartons, envelopes, junk mail, magazines, telephone books, white and colored paper, plastic bottles, jugs and jars labeled No. 1 or No. 2, tin and steel cans.

In both Sonora and Tuolumne County, if more than 10 percent of your stuff in the can is not on these lists, chances are your whole cart is going to the landfill.

Bottles and jars should be clean but don't have to be spotless, Cadelago said.

Here's another problem, according to Diane Green, Tuolumne County solid waste technician: If you clean up all your bottles and jars and tin cans and then put them in a garbage bag and then into the recycling can, those cleaned-up cans are going to the landfill.

In other words, don’t follow the rules, landfill.

From the transfer station here, where everything is piled up together in a corner of a shed, recyclables go to the Materials Handling Facility in Lodi — they call it the murf — where the truck dumps it on the tip floor.

A loader moves a giant pile to a conveyor belt to begin a journey through a complex series of conveyor belts and spinning discs to sort the materials. At the end, is the trash that goes to the landfill. The good stuff is bundled for sale to companies that actually make things out of it like recycled paper, metal ingots that can become bridges or tinfoil, plastic to polymers used for, among many other things, garbage cans.

Cadelago said Waste Management has started a number of pilot programs that go beyond education, which he believes only goes so far. In Lodi, for example, they sent auditors to check recycling cans, and people had several warnings before being fined for putting the wrong stuff in the cans. He said typically most people changed their ways before they got to the fining stage.

So, the answer is, if you put the right stuff in your cart, the system works.

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