Lake Tahoe, a renowned tourist destination on the California-Nevada border, is facing a significant environmental threat, according to the first study examining large plastic waste in the area. Published in Applied Spectroscopy in September, the study revealed disturbing findings, indicating an average of 133 pieces of plastic per mile in the lake.
Lake Tahoe, known for its pristine beauty, spans 191 square miles with approximately 72 miles of shoreline, making it the third-deepest lake in North America and the tenth-deepest globally. While previous studies have identified microplastics in the lake, this recent survey focused on larger plastic debris, shedding light on a new dimension of pollution.
The plastic pollution primarily originated from a variety of sources, including food containers, bags, bottles, toys, fishing gear, gloves, ropes, cutlery, cigarettes, and buoys. Newsweek reported that the survey encountered unidentified items as well. The types of plastic found included PVC, packaging materials, plastic bottles, caps, and fabrics, with the smallest item being approximately the size of a pencil eraser.
Monica Arienzo, an associate research professor of hydrologic sciences at the Desert Research Institute, expressed concern over the findings. She highlighted that these items were relatively large, emphasizing the need for attention to address this environmental challenge.
The study underscores the potential risk of lakes and reservoirs becoming “plastic litter sinks” due to the influx of human-produced land-based waste through stormwater, wind, and rivers. Arienzo drew parallels with findings from studies on litter at the ocean floor, indicating comparable levels of pollution.
Although up to 0.5% of produced plastic ends up in oceans, the continuous rise in manufacturing rates poses a substantial problem, contributing to around 1 million metric tons of annual plastic waste. Plastics are known to contain toxic chemicals, and improper disposal methods, such as burning, result in the contamination of air, soil, and water. The consequences include disruptions to reproduction, growth, cognitive function, and an increased risk of disease.
Microplastics, known for their notorious presence, have been detected in diverse environments, from clouds to Antarctica. Newsweek reported that humans unknowingly inhale about a credit card’s worth of microplastics each week, with links to severe health issues such as cancers, lung diseases, and birth defects.
The study’s findings emphasize the urgent need for increased environmental awareness and proactive measures to mitigate the impact of plastic pollution in Lake Tahoe. As one of nature’s treasures faces this threat, scientists stress the importance of education and collective efforts to address the challenges posed by plastic waste in freshwater ecosystems.