The Ashland man made a desperate call to his recycling company Thursday to report that someone in his house had inadvertently recycled a shoebox stuffed with $23,000, said Linda Wise, the general manager of the Recology recycling plant in Humboldt County, California.
To her surprise, an employee found the money, and it was returned to the man less than 48 hours later.
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The man had recently sold an RV and a truck, and had stashed the money in a Vans shoebox with intentions of using it to buy another RV, Wise said. But one of his family members "who are good recyclers" put the shoebox in a curbside recycling bin.
The box traveled more than 200 miles by truck, from Ashland to Samoa, California, before being deposited at the plant.
"We had already received the material and gone through most of it," Wise said. The theory was that "it's probably squished up somewhere."
Wise said each truck carries about 22 tons of material, and the plant receives about 100 tons a day, making the shoebox "like a needle in a haystack."
But on Friday morning, Nick Page, an employee was "pulling cardboard off the line, and saw piles of 20s," said Wise.
"He calmly put it all together ... and walked it to his boss, and said 'Here's the money that guy was looking for,'" Wise said. All but three $20 bills were found.
When the man was informed his money had been found, he was "happy as could be," Wise said.
He arrived Saturday morning to collect his money after a four-hour drive, and when he got to the plant, he wanted to reward the employees, but they refused.
"Everyone’s consensus was it was the right thing to do," Wise said. "Everybody was beaming, just happy that they were able to do something like that for him."
"We’ll do something nice for our employees. I’m trying to think of something cool for them," Wise said. "I'm proud of them."
Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.