Lake Tahoe littered with plastic

Clean Up the Lake

Plastic litter is a growing problem around the world and new research shows that the bottom of Lake Tahoe is no exception. In one of the first studies to utilize scube divers to collect litter from a lakebed, 673 plastic items were counted from just a small fraction of the lake, according to a press release from the Desert Research Institute.

In the study, published in the journal Applied Spectroscopy, researchers from DRI and the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center teamed up with the nonprofit Clean Up the Lake to take a close look at the litter. First, scientists broke it down into categories based on use (such as food containers and water bottles), followed by the chemical composition of the plastic. The knowledge gained can help scientists better understand the source of large pieces of litter in the lake, as well as whether they’re a significant source of microplastics as larger pieces break down and degrade. Previous research found that the waters of Lake Tahoe contain high levels of microplastics.

The data found an average of 83 pieces of plastic litter per kilometer, with the lakebed near Hidden Beach and South Sand Harbor showing significantly more. No stretches of the lakebed surveyed were free of plastic litter.

The most common plastic litter categories were food containers, bottles, plastic bags and toys.

The study can help inform efforts by Tahoe-area communities to address plastic litter, such as South Lake Tahoe’s 2022 ban on single-use plastic bottles and Truckee’s ban on single-use food containers, according to DRI. The research also highlights ways that scientists can work with nonprofits to collect data that can address local environmental concerns.

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