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Turns out recycling happens

Call me cynical. But I wasn't sure I fully trusted that city recycling truck.

Sure, as a Tampa resident, I happily replaced my old-school curbside recycling bin this year with a tall, green plastic can on wheels as part of a new automated system. This baby maneuvers on a dime and has a lid to boot. What's not to like?

People who live in Hillsborough County are getting similarly wheeled bins for their own expanded recycling program that kicks off next week. I tell my county neighbors it will rock their world, garbagewise — no more struggling to carry a bin to the curb, no more newspapers blowing down the street or soaked with rain, no more plastic bottles bouncing out. St. Pete is talking citywide curbside recycling again, or still. All good.

But weekly as I watched my can dumped into that big blue truck — all of it going to one place, not sorted by plastic here and glass there but in a "single stream," as they call it — I would think:

Really? So how exactly do my soda cans get separated from my pizza boxes and pickle jars? Not that I thought there was some conspiracy in which they dumped everything some secret place, but … how?

So I did what anyone would do: I went to visit the Waste Management facility where the city's recycling (allegedly) went.

Turns out everyone from Sierra Clubbers to Scouts to high-schoolers have made trips to see the $26 million warehouse facility in an industrial patch east of Ybor City. Turns out it's pretty amazing — Bob the Builder meets Legoland, except a little smellier. (It is garbage, even if it's reusable garbage.)

Those trucks that prowl neighborhoods come rumbling in and dump their loads. The stuff is taken to a fascinating system of more than 5,000 feet of conveyor belt, pushed up three stories high and then rolled along for sorting. It goes past overhead vacuums that suck up plastic bags and across sprocketlike rollers that send cardboard dancing off. Newspaper gets screened out and heavier stuff falls through gaps.

Optical sorting machines can be programmed to recognize different materials to get it sorted with similar stuff. Aluminum drink cans get ejected off the sorting line using a rare-earth magnet. And hard-hatted, heavily gloved humans use old fashioned visuals to pick through recycling as it passes by.

So that milk jug a city dweller throws in the can at the curb winds up in a massive 1,500-pound cube of similar jugs waiting to be shipped off to become windbreakers or a baby toy. Sunday's tailgate beer cans are by week's end bound for a place where they will become usable cans all over again. About 11 percent of what comes in ends up in a landfill.

"I don't let much go to waste," district plant manager Scotte Kavanaugh says as we stand there surveying what looks like mountains of a city's garbage ready to be reused.

City recycling participation has nearly doubled to more than 60 percent since the new cans started rolling out, so I'm not the only one convinced. But cynicism about how this actually happens apparently wasn't mine alone, either. "We get that question all the time," says Tampa recycling coordinator Lori Van Bemden.

But seeing all that well-meant garbage bound for a better place can make you a believer — trust me.