A locally sourced way to address single-use plastic litter (Opinion)
Earlier this week, the South Lake Tahoe City Council received a report from the League to Save Lake Tahoe about a collaborative, grassroots program to tackle local litter through outreach to local businesses. To Keep Tahoe Blue, the volunteer-fueled education effort targeted litter items that are far too common: bags, straws, utensils, containers and other single-use, plastic trash from to-go food.
These items are used once, for just a few minutes, but will stay in the environment – on beaches, trails and in the lake – forever, if not properly thrown away. And, sadly, most litter does not find its way into trash cans and dumpsters.
Since 2014, foodware items made of plastics and expanded polystyrene – another petroleum-derived material, often called “Styrofoam” – are some of the most commonly found items during Keep Tahoe Blue cleanup events. The amount of litter removed from the local environment is staggering:
- 31,424 polystyrene items, and pieces
- 19,290 straws, straw wrappers, and stirrers
- 8,707 plastic utensils
Based on data collected by our volunteers, combined with the best available science, our team at the League advocates for solutions to environmental problems, including plastic litter. The City Council has taken bold steps to stop this pollution problem, using the League’s litter data as motivation. In 2015, they instituted a ban on single-use plastic bags, before the California statewide ban. In 2018, they passed an ordinance banning polystyrene products and requiring businesses to provide single-use utensils and plastic straws only if customers request them. Both of these anti-litter ordinances were updated at the end of 2022 to align with California state law.
Yet, to-go food litter persists, even with these ordinances on the books. So, my colleagues, together with city of South Lake Tahoe staff and a team of 36 community volunteers, visited 101 local businesses from the Y to Stateline this winter to build awareness of the city’s anti-litter ordinances, provide informational resources, and offer help finding recyclable, compostable or Lake-friendly replacements for single-use plastics.
The volunteers included local youth from SOS Outreach and the South Tahoe High Climate Club/Generation Green, along with the League’s core volunteers. Businesses were very open to hearing from young people who are passionate about protecting their community and environment.
The most common items the volunteers saw and discussed with businesses were polystyrene clamshell to-go containers, meat and seafood trays, and single-use cutlery, straws and sauce packets provided without a customer request.
While almost two-thirds of businesses were in compliance with the city’s anti-litter ordinances, less than half were aware of the rules. The outreach team had resources at the ready, including English and Spanish versions of a flier about the ordinances, as well as a guide for sourcing non-plastic replacements. If you know of a business who could benefit from these resources, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As we slowly move into spring, another litter-fighting measure is approaching. The first phase of the City’s trailblazing ban on single-use plastic water bottles goes into effect on April 22 in celebration of Earth Day. For more information on each of these ordinances, please visit the city’s single-use plastics webpage – cityofslt.us/plasticwaste.
Keeping our South Shore community beautiful is up to all of us – local government, businesses, organizations and community members. To see how you can Keep Tahoe Blue, visit keeptahoeblue.org/join-us and find the opportunity that’s right for you.
Darcie Goodman Collins, PhD, is CEO of the League to Save Lake Tahoe.
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