Julie Stockinger, from Uckfield, feared the worse when the only key for her Saab 9-3 Estate slipped from her hand as she deposited rubbish at Maresfield Household Waste Recycling Site.
However, after weighbridge operator Becky Walter enlisted colleagues to ‘muck in’ and they spent hours painstakingly sifting through four tonnes of waste, the missing key was found and returned to its grateful owner.
Julie said: “I picked up some rubbish and threw it into the big bin with both hands, then heard a clink of metal. That’s when I realised the car key had gone in.
“I literally cried on the spot. The car is quite rare and I would have had to order a replacement key from Sweden, which would have cost hundreds of pounds and taken several days.
“I spoke to Becky and she got all the guys to down tools and come and help. They got out steps, metal prods and a grabbing machine and were trying to pull out as much rubbish as they could.”
After two hours, with closing time looming, there was still no sign of the missing key and staff helped Julie secure her car as she called a taxi for herself and children Ella, four, and one-year-old Jack.
The 36-year-old, who needs the car to ferry her children around and to run a cleaning firm and social marketing company, feared the worse until the phone rang the next morning.
Julie said: “I didn’t even bother to call the tip as I thought I had no chance of getting the key back, but then Becky rang me to say they’d found it. I couldn’t believe it and I cried again.
“The guys had stayed late the previous night and had been in since the early hours looking through the bin – it was really all hands to the pump.
“I know they get some flak from the public sometimes but I just can’t praise the staff there enough. I got an amazing service and they really couldn’t have done any more to help.”
Julie returned to the site, operated by Veolia, to thank the staff who dug her out of a hole with gifts of a sweet bouquet and some beers to raise a glass to her waste site heroes.
Karl Taylor, East Sussex County Council assistant director for operations, said: “Our household waste site employees do a fantastic job in all weathers providing a vital service.
“It’s great to hear how the workers at Maresfield went the extra mile to reunite Julie with her car key and to be able to recognise their dedication to helping the public.”