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Save Lake Tahoe from single-use plastics (Opinion)

Darcie Goodman Collins and Tina Devon Gallier
Guest column

For decades, public agencies and environmental advocates have worked to “Keep Tahoe Blue” by reducing the amount of pollution that makes its way into the Lake, including everything from fertilizer runoff to fine sediments from degraded roads. Today, the Jewel of the Sierra faces a new challenge: the ubiquity of plastic pollution.

Single-use plastics are a main source of Lake Tahoe’s plastic pollution problem. At community clean-up events hosted by the League to Save Lake Tahoe, disposable plastic utensils, plastic wrappers and unidentifiable plastic pieces are consistently among the most frequently collected litter. Such waste blights California’s unique natural treasures and can permanently damage its fragile ecosystems.

Californians need places like Tahoe as a source of respite and renewal, especially now. But with corporations ushering a surge of single-use plastic packaging and products into our homes during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to reduce and replace such items with those that are truly recyclable or compostable, and, in the longer term put reusable and refillable systems in place.

The League used litter data from cleanup events to help pass local bans on plastic bags and polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam, just as jurisdictions across California have implemented similar ordinances to reduce trash from a variety of single-use plastic products. But California needs more than a patchwork of local laws to protect our natural spaces: we need a comprehensive, statewide plastic-reduction policy.

Identical proposed laws AB 1080 and SB 54 would create the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act, which would reduce 75 percent of non-reusable, non-recyclable and non-compostable packaging and food serviceware by 2030. Medical uses of plastic are exempted. The system created by these bills would be one of the most effective ways to protect Lake Tahoe and all of California from plastic pollution.

These measures must pass as soon as possible because plastic recycling and “compostable” single-use items have not turned out to be a sufficient solution to our single-use problems. According to the United Nations, only nine percent of plastic is ever recycled – everything else gets landfilled or littered. In addition, the “compostable” utensils provided in grocery stores only break down in industrial composters at high temperatures, not in backyard composting bins.

There is also plastic we cannot see. In 2019, scientists aided by volunteers with the League discovered microplastics — tiny fragments frequently invisible to the naked eye — in the waters of Lake Tahoe for the first time. Reno’s Desert Research Institute is revealing that microplastics are extremely mobile. Snowpack sampling from remote reaches of the Sierra Nevada mountains turn up microplastics, meaning they are likely carried there by the wind. And a new study is investigating if microfibers from synthetic clothing escaping out of dryer vents could be one of the culprits. This sobering discovery, in the strictly regulated, carefully protected Lake Tahoe, has changed what we know about the threats to Tahoe’s water quality and clarity.

And if microplastics are in the snowpack and Lake Tahoe, they are everywhere, impacting our agricultural systems and drinking water, where both humans and animals will eventually ingest them.

Personal actions help. You can reduce purchases of single-use plastics, switch to reusables and participate in community cleanups. But the problem of plastic pollution is vast and systemic. The only solution is large-scale reduction in the amount of plastics that are manufactured in the first place. SB 54 and AB 1080 would do that. Now is not the time to overlook environmentally important legislation and projects. To protect Lake Tahoe and the rest of California’s unique natural spaces, we must ask our legislators to pass these bills as soon as possible.

Darcie Goodman Collins, PhD is CEO of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. Tina Devon Gallier is on the board of 350 Sacramento.


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