Story & Photos by Elijah Kreiss

(Editor’s note: In pursuit of Moonshine Ink’s mission to promote and foster youth journalism, we present this piece from local high school student, Elijah Kreiss. Be sure to check out his video at the end.)

Imagine if there were no place to get rid of trash in Truckee. What would our town look like? Tall piles of plastic bags on every corner? Trash strewn out on the streets like in the Old West?

Every week our trash magically disappears from our curbs or bear boxes so we don’t have to think about it. It just vanishes! How does this happen?


I decided to go to “the dump” and find out, and I want to share what I learned.

My dad and I took a trip to the Placer County Materials Recovery Facility, familiarly known to us as the “Truckee Dump,” to see what happens after our trash leaves our curb. Turns out, it is a much more complex process than we ever thought. We had the privilege of meeting with the operations managers at the dump, Selene De La Rosa and Ryan Collins, and the Placer County environmental specialist, Corie Heisler. They took us on an extensive tour of the facility, and it blew our minds.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: Each employee is assigned a certain material to look for and pull from the moving line of trash.

We started our tour in front of a gigantic pile of mixed trash.

The facility processes between 200 to 500 tons of trash every day, generally Monday to Friday, that comes from across the North Lake Tahoe and Truckee region, including Donner Summit. Collins said garbage in Nevada is not generally processed or sorted and South Lake Tahoe has its own materials recovery facility (MRF), albeit on a much smaller scale.

Collins described how every piece of trash and recyclable material is sorted by hand at the dump. “It’s a coordinated ballet, all day long,” he said. He explained that the dump is primarily a sorting facility. “We’re like a mine. We’re not making the jewelry. We’re just mining the gold.” Trash trucks bring waste and recyclables and other materials such as green waste to the dump. The items are then processed, with staff pulling out what can be recycled and what doesn’t have a recycling market is sent to a landfill in Nevada.

Pulling from the piles left by collection trucks, big machines scoop up trash and deposit it onto conveyor belts. There, each piece of trash is sorted by hand by a team of 50 workers. Workers line both sides of the conveyor belt and manually sort the materials into separate bins. Each worker wears personal protective equipment that includes a helmet, protective glasses, a dust mask, arm protection, and gloves. They need this safety equipment to protect against hazards such as needles, glass, cans, and other sharp and sometimes toxic materials.

The workers were fast! Their hands were a blur as they reached for the specific material that they were assigned to collect, tossing that material into a bin for collection, distribution, and eventual reuse. They sort even in the frigid, snowy cold of winter and in the middle of the broiling summer.

HIGH PILE, HIGH PRAISE: Ryan Collins described fellow operations manager Selene De La Rosa as the “person who makes it all work.”

Each bin is then sorted individually for more specific materials. Plastic, for example, is sorted by thicknesses, color, and quality. The refined pile of materials is sent to the baler machine where it is compacted into transportable bundles.

The bales are then sold to brokers for reuse in commercial industry, including global markets. Collins described to us how recycling is a gigantic economy with huge fluctuations in market price. When the price of oil was sky high a few months ago, Collins explained, there was a bump in global interest for purchasing recycled plastic as the cost of producing new plastic was prohibitively high. This temporary spike changed abruptly when oil prices came down, and the market for recycled plastic disappeared.

Similarly, during the pandemic the value of recycled cardboard spiked amid a surge in Amazon and mask purchases. Yet in mid-October, the market price of cardboard was negative, which dried up important revenue sources used to offset the cost of processing.

The China National Sword policy, enacted in 2018 and banning the importation of certain types of solid waste, as well as setting strict contamination limits, made recycling far more expensive, Collins pointed out.

When the market drops, the trash in question goes to a landfill. Collins commented that stability in the recycling marketplace could be better achieved if the public were to support legislative action to support the growth of companies and technology that can make things out of recyclables.

“There is never a point where we are sending [trash] directly to the landfill; we’re always sorting it,” he said. He further explained that fees paid by residents for curbside pickup and by people who drop it off at the facility are what support the sorting and recycling process despite variability in the market.

We had no idea that there were so many factors related to the “disappearing” of our trash from our curb.

In addition to worker safety and variable markets for recyclables, there are geological and environmental considerations. Those factors were at play when the site of the dump was chosen more than 50 years ago. Monitoring and modification continue to ensure environmental safety. They have done such a great job of this that this year, water from the well adjacent to the site was voted “2022 Best Tasting Water in California” by the California Rural Water Association.

SCOOPED: Trash is lifted to conveyor belts for staff to sort.

Safe operations at the dump, however, are a community responsibility. There is a sticker on the top of your blue recycle bin that describes the do’s and don’ts of recycling. Collins urged us all to “think about human hands” and leave no loose sharps such as needles or knives in your bin. He said that even crushed cans can be a danger as their edges can be sharp. He asked us to leave our cans uncrushed so that nobody’s hands get cut, and the workers can easily identify the contents of the can.

“There are 50 people in this building that we want to take care of,” he said. “If you wouldn’t feel comfortable sticking your own hands into your trash bin, then it shouldn’t be in there.”

Sometimes we throw away things that could cause fires at the dump.

“The lithium ion battery is our greatest nemesis.” Collins said. “People are buying e-cigarettes and e-bikes … they are throwing these away but are not aware that they are causing fires.” Hazardous waste and electronic waste such as computers, televisions, fluorescent light tubes, and bulbs present additional dangers at the dump. These items can be taken to the dump and disposed of there, but should not be placed in your weekly trash. If you are worried that any of the items you are throwing away may be causing harm to the workers at the dump, you can call Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal (TTSD) to schedule a hazardous waste appointment. In addition, batteries and small electronic items can be placed on top of the lid of your trash can in a sealed plastic bag for pickup.

BE MINDFUL: To help take care of the 50 employees at the MRF, Collins says, “If you wouldn’t feel comfortable sticking your own hands into your trash bin, then it shouldn’t be in there.”

Given everything that the sorters do for us, it makes sense to do our part to protect them. At the heart of the operation are the true heroes of our community, the ones who sort through our hazardous sharps and rotting meat with speed and grace so that we don’t live in an apocalyptically gross town surrounded by our own waste.

If you have questions of any type about our local dump, or simply want to take a tour as we did, please call TTSD/Eastern Regional Landfill at (530) 583-7800. If you have questions about the facility itself and/or questions about recycling in general, you can call Placer County at (530) 889-6846 or send an email to

And finally, please remember, as it says right on top of your blue recycle bin: “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle as the last resort.”

~ Elijah Kreiss is a sophomore at Truckee High School.

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