Study investigates link between clothes dryers, microplastic pollution in Lake Tahoe

After discovering microplastics last year in Lake Tahoe, Desert Research Institute and the League to Save Lake Tahoe are trying to find where they are coming from and solutions on how to prevent them.

DRI scientists, Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., assistant research professor of hydrology at DRI and Meghan Collins, M.S., DRI’s education program manager, created a lint catcher to install on dryer vents.

“We’re trying to answer the question, ‘are dryers a source of microplastics?’ which may seem like a simple question but not a lot of people have tried to answer it,” Arienzo said.

Arienzo added that while dryers do have lint catchers, she’s wondering how much and what is getting through them.

The lint catcher is simple. Collins found a plastic covering that prevents critters from getting into the vents and lined it with mesh. There are bags available for that purpose but Arienzo said because Reno and Tahoe are so windy, she didn’t think they would work well in this area.

Support from REI Co-op helped Arienzo and Collins build the catchers. The League helped find nine citizen scientists who have installed the lint catcher and will spend a month tracking their dryer usage, including how often and what they are drying.

“Whenever I present microplastics to the community, people always ask what they can do,” Arienzo said.

People can install the citizen scientist Tahoe app to track their dryer usage.

“We will use all of this information to understand the connection between synthetic clothes, dryers, and microfiber emissions into the environment,” Collins said in a press release. “We are also hoping that our lint catcher design will provide an easy solution for helping individuals to reduce their ‘microplastic footprint’. We’re excited to see what citizen scientists think about this solution.”

This is the first step in collecting data. Arienzo said the next step would be laboratory experiments where they look at what kind of effect variables like temperature settings or clothing age has on the amount of lint.

The data they collect can be used to influence policy makers to get the devices installed in the community or to inform clothing manufacturers on the impact their products have.

With COVID-19, Arienzo said we’re likely to see new plastic sources become a problem such as the surgical masks or the testing swabs.

“It’s a fun time to do this work because there are so many organizations in the area starting to think about this,” said Arienzo, who has been on the forefront of this topic.

“Our hope is that this and future studies will narrow in on the sources of microplastic pollution at Tahoe,” said Jesse Patterson, Chief Strategy Officer at the League to Save Lake Tahoe in a press release.

“Combined with litter data gathered by Keep Tahoe Blue volunteers, we hope to convert the findings into solutions to the pollution problem facing our Lake. This is only possible through the partnership of research experts at DRI and passionate citizen scientists.”

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