Tahoe’s trash troubles: Is it getting better or worse?

Trash left behind at Zephyr Shoals on July 5. | League to Save Lake Tahoe

Almost every roadside and beach are laden with dog waste bags, plastic bottles, empty beer cans, diapers and food wrappers. Garbage has long been an issue during the summer, on weekends and during holidays, but during the pandemic, it burgeoned into a year-round problem, as Tahoe Guide has reported in its coverage on visitor impacts to the region for the last three years.

Local agencies and nonprofits have tried to mitigate the trash problem but this year the July 4 weekend left record amounts of trash strewn across beaches. On July 5, Tahoe received national media attention when more than 8,000 pounds were left scattered across the beaches around Lake Tahoe. Other beaches around Tahoe and at Donner Lake also saw trash left by holiday revelers.

But is July 5 the new normal or is Tahoe’s trash problem getting better? Local experts weigh in and discuss what is working, what still needs to be done and what the future holds for this pristine environment.

Less trash in Truckee
Court Leve, Truckee Tahoe Litter Group Facebook Page administrator, is an outspoken advocate to keep the area free from trash. Leve arrived at West End Beach on Donner Lake at 5:30 a.m. on July 5 to document the trash left behind after the Truckee fireworks display.

“West End Beach is theoretically for locals. It was a sad display. Piles of trash were left on picnic tables and the ground only a few feet from the garbage cans,” says Leve. West End Beach, managed by Truckee Donner Recreation and Park District, spearheaded cleanup efforts after the holiday. Leve said that staff and volunteers did a fantastic job cleaning up. (Watch Leve’s video of the cleanup on Tahoe Guide’s Facebook and Instagram pages.)

Overall Leve says he feels that the Park District and Town of Truckee has been doing a great job, and there’s been less trash this summer.

Tahoe’s trash problem is everyone’s problem. Locals and tourists alike need to be held accountable for trashing Tahoe.

“I think there has been a shift here which is pretty remarkable compared to what we’ve seen elsewhere,” says Leve.

He adds that the Town of Truckee’s See, Click, Fix app is helpful, which allows people to report issues in real-time. Leve wonders if additional signage and messaging could help

VIDEO: Town of Truckee July 5th cleanup efforts. | Court Leve

with the trash situation. Leve also believes that volunteer cleanup efforts might inadvertently allow government officials to evade their responsibility for maintaining the cleanliness of the community. He believes officials need to take more action and be accountable for the trash problem.

“I’m happy with the progress we’ve made to mitigate some of our trash issues,” says Lindsay Romack, Town of Truckee mayor, noting that she thinks it’s cleaner this summer.

The Town of Truckee is implementing programs to address trash issues, like solar compacting trash cans downtown. Romack adds that a single use food ordinance will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

“Hopefully that will help reduce the amount of single use items that people will be throwing away,” says Romack. Truckee is also exploring a ban on single-use plastic bottles.

In addition, Romack says, the town has contracted with the Clean Tahoe program to pick up garbage twice a week. One hot spot is the alley between Jibboom Street and Donner Pass Road in downtown. Romack says the town is working to increase enforcement with businesses to deal with the trash.

League remains hopeful
The League to Save Lake Tahoe considers itself one of Lake Tahoe’s strongest environmental advocates, organizing hundreds of volunteers, called Tahoe Blue Crews, to pick up trash.

Volunteers collected an astounding 6,200 pounds of trash at Zephyr Shoals on July 5 making national news, with another 2,300 pounds collected at five other beaches.

“If we take out the Zephyr Shoals incident. Trash is more or less in line with what we’ve been seeing over the last 10 years as far as the weight of the trash,” explains Jesse Patterson, League to Save Lake Tahoe’s chief strategy officer.

He adds that the type of trash is different this summer. Patterson says there is about the same amount of weight but fewer big items and a lot more smaller items. His concern is that these small items end up in the lake and it’s almost impossible to retrieve them.

These small pieces of trash turn into microplastic, which contain chemicals that are harmful to wildlife and humans. According to research recently published in the journal Nature, Tahoe has the third highest concentration of plastic in the world, as Tahoe Guide reported in July. (Read our story on “Microplastics: Tahoe’s tiniest trash” at YourTahoeGuide.com.)

Despite the trash, Patterson is hopeful. He says changes in parking management, and the enforcement of existing and new rules such as the alcohol ban on specific beaches are helping. Noting that the League has seen a decrease in litter where alcohol bans are enforced.

The League is also working with the Forest Service and other stakeholders on a new program called Tahoe Blue Beaches. The program will assess current infrastructure, trash receptacles and toilets and add increased messaging and signage. Zephyr Shoals is part of Tahoe Blue Beaches and a new concessionaire will oversee the beach in the future.

The League also implemented BEBOT, a solar and battery-powered beach cleaning robot. The BEBOT collects microdebris from sand. Testing on a 5,000-foot beach plot discovered that the BEBOT found 10 times more trash than volunteers cleaning the same size plot.

“We are not cleaning up the lake to let everybody off the hook. The trash that the volunteers pick up is data. Data is very powerful. It gives evidence to the decision-makers to prove we need to do more,” explains Patterson.

Patterson also adds that South Lake Tahoe’s ban on plastic bags, Styrofoam, polystyrene and plastic bottles are all great solutions to Tahoe’s trash problem.

Locals, STRs share responsibility
The Clean Tahoe program has cleaned up trash in South Lake Tahoe for the last 30 years and has expanded to Truckee and other areas around the lake in recent years. The organization removes garbage from illegal dumping, attends to trash caused by bears and works with local communities to pick up garbage. Field techs work five days a week collecting garbage.

Read Priya’s story on microplastics at YourTahoeGuide.com

“Illegal dumps and a lot of the trash we deal with is from locals. Roadside litter is mostly tourists,” explains Katie Sheeran, Clean Tahoe Program executive director. She adds that bear messes are a combination of locals and short-term rentals.

“Our job is to keep it clean,” says Sheeran. She points out that busy hot spots are generally near the beaches and where people park. Crews find a lot of trash left along Highway 89 from West Way to Baldwin Beach and along Highway 28 from the Washoe County line to Sand Harbor. Sheeran thinks it is essential for people in the community to take responsibility and pick up trash whenever possible.

Trash is everyone’s problem
“It’s really simple. If you want to deal with the trash issue, you have to have more garbage service and we have to have coordinated efforts for peak days in Tahoe,” explains Amy Berry, executive director of the Tahoe Fund.

She also cites the keys to destination management in dealing with the trash problem: How do we better manage people when they’re here and give them a better experience? How do we build a culture of caretaking and provide the necessary infrastructure? And the last key is enforcement.

Report trash


El Dorado County

  • Eastern Slope area | (530) 573-3450, edcgov.us

Douglas County

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Placer County

South Lake Tahoe


Washoe County

June & July trash data

Provided by Clean Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe

  • 75 animal cleanups
  • 19 illegal dump cleanups
  • 406.5 bags of trash (50-gallon bags), approximately 3,252 lbs.

North Shore

  • 29 animal cleanups
  • 18 illegal dumps cleanups
  • 430 bags of trash (50-gallon bags), approximately 3,440 lbs.

Keep Tahoe Blue

July 5th beach cleanups (10 years)

  • 3,170 volunteers
  • 24,191 lbs. of trash

January-July 2023 cleanups

  • 1,116 volunteers
  • 16,616 lbs. of trash