Incline woman dedicated to litter removal at Lake Tahoe

Miranda Jacobson

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — During a traffic jam in Tahoe City last week, Incline Village resident and Tahoe Blue Crew volunteer Carolyn Usinger got out of her car to pick up pieces of trash she saw on the side of the road.

She said that while she appreciates the praise from other drivers, it was something she felt was essential in keeping Lake Tahoe in it’s top tier condition.

“I spend about two to four hours every day picking up trash and I have done it for Mount Rose Highway, U.S. Highway 50 down to Carson and Nevada State Route 28 down East Shore,” Usinger said. “My whole car is full of trash and I do it everyday. I kind of realized that I was obsessive and ridiculous, but there was so much trash and nobody was doing anything about it. So I just continued.”

Usinger has been picking up trash for over two years, collecting anywhere between 2,000-3,000 pieces a day. She’s collected odd items like computers and wedding rings. (Miranda Jacobson
Tahoe Daily Tribune)

Usinger’s family has been in the Tahoe basin as early as the 1970’s, but she didn’t notice a serious trash problem until moving up from Carson City to her sister’s house in Incline Village in September of 2019. While commuting daily, she noticed excessive amounts of trash in the area, especially at the entrance to Incline Village and along SR-28.

“It’s just the most beautiful road in the world and there was trash all over it,” Usinger said. “I was commuting for a while up here and I was watching a couple of pieces of trash to see who was going to pick it up. And I discovered over a couple of weeks that no one was going to pick it up. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to pick it up, because Incline is a lovely town.'”

After picking up trash and disposing of it in her personal bins, she realized she needed more space to dispose of the litter and got permission from IVGID Waste Management that had an extra dumpster.

For Usinger, that was both a blessing and a curse. With an endless resource to dump what she found, she began picking up more trash.

“My car shows it. I mean, really, my car is continually filled with trash,” Usinger said.

After joining the Keep Tahoe Blue Crew in June of 2020, Usinger began to report her daily pick-ups to the organization. The League to Save Tahoe website reported that in 2020 alone, Usinger spent over 200 hours on clean-ups, and conducted 125 of her own Keep Tahoe Blue clean-ups. Usinger said the number is actually much higher, but she stopped giving data to the Blue Crew in October of 2020 due to the amount of time it took to count the trash she collected.

“It doubled the time I took to pick up because of counting,” Usinger said.

Usigner, along with fellow Keep Tahoe Blue Crew member Ben Dosseff, have been working together over the last two years to try to defeat Tahoe’s severe littering problem. Dosseff said that after moving here five years ago and being an avid wilderness walker, he noticed an excessive amount of trash on the trails.

Carolyn Usinger and Ben Dosseff have known each other for two years, and have been actively fighting against littering in Tahoe together since. (Miranda Jacobson / Tahoe Daily Tribune)

“I thought, ‘Well this isn’t right,’ because it’s too beautiful here to see this much trash,” Dosseff said. “Lake Tahoe is listed in the top 10 most beautiful lakes in the world. So I was concerned.”

Together, Dosseff and Usinger have been picking up trash and reaching out to local organizations all around the basin to not only prevent littering, but start a larger campaign focused on education locals and tourists about the effects of littering, and how important it is to pick up trash regularly.

“We need a huge campaign that will go on forever, getting people, locals and visitors, to pick up trash while they’re out enjoying the beautiful lake and lands,” Dosseff said. “The more volunteers, the more people that, even if they’re just out walking and they see a piece of trash, to pick it up; that would solve the problem.”

Some of the education the duo feels is important to keep in mind is about waste disposal while out at public beaches past Sand Harbor.

“The problem is a lot of people come to Tahoe not knowing there are no garbage cans along the 28,” Usinger said. “They have no idea there are no restrooms.”

Difficulty in managing public garbage locations stems from lack of paid staff being able to consistently check the areas without waste areas on top of other areas already managed, as well as the issue of bears overrunning areas filled with leftover food. So Usinger and Dosseff have both came to the agreement that the solutions lie within educating everyone in the basin.

Dosseff said that for those who might not want to put their hands on the trash, it’s handy to carry a waste basket and some kind of grabber to avoid phsycial contact. Provided Miranda Jacobson

Usinger said that it’s important to reach out to tourists early on and let them know about the importance of keeping Tahoe litter free. While their first idea of putting signs around the basin failed, Usinger said that they’ve adapted their no-littering messages into stickers for local businesses to hand-out.

“The thing about tourists is that we have to reach out to them when they come in so that they can see that we care about the trash,” Usinger said.

But the two both agreed the best way to help the problem is to lead by example with consistency.

“I go through Incline every day,” Usinger said. “I go through Highway 28 every two days, Mount Rose about once a week. My theory is that if people consistently see Tahoe without any trash, that’s what they’ll expect, and they’ll probably think of it as a place they shouldn’t trash. If they consistently see trash, they’re going to say, ‘Nobody cares.'”

A few other clean up crews in the Tahoe area include Clean Tahoe in South Lake, which Usinger explained will begin daily cleanups in July, as well as the Clean up the Lake crew.

“It’s way, way, way, too big for [just] volunteers,” Usinger said. “The first solution is everybody needs to pick up trash when they see it because it’s impossible for paid staff to find it all.”

Visit the Keep Tahoe Blue website here for information about the Keep Tahoe Blue Crew and Usinger’s work last year.

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