Pollution in Tahoe: Microplastics, a growing concern

Pollution in Tahoe: Microplastics, a growing concern

For the first time in history, microplastics are in Lake Tahoe. 

The Desert Research Institute in Reno recently completed a preliminary study of the lake screening for plastics. They are currently not sure how the water has become polluted, as microplastics are a relatively new problem. 

“On one level, we’re heartbroken and disappointed by this discovery,” Monica Arienzo said. Arienzo is leading the investigation at Lake Tahoe. “We really hoped we wouldn’t find much of this material in Tahoe’s water, which is almost entirely snowmelt,”.

Researchers are unsure how the microplastics got into the lake, but they have a few theories. But that also leaves the question of what are microplastics? Well, the name does a fair job of explaining it. 

But what are microplastics?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration define microplastics as small plastic pieces no larger than 5 millimeters in length.  

In 2016, 71 million pounds of plastic water bottles were recycled in the U.S. As impressive as that sounds, that's a 1.4 percent decrease over the previous year.

As mentioned prior, microplastic research is still in its infancy. Despite this, the NOAA has made strides in just a short time. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is leading the effort in researching this new form of pollution. However, we haven’t addressed how to they conduct their research. 

The program collects samples from around whichever water source they are studying at the time. They take samples from the sedimentary layer at the bottom of the lake, sand and the surface level of the lake. This ensures that researchers are getting a fair reading of the entire lake. In a body of water as large as Lake Tahoe, this is especially crucial as water quality can be drastically different depending on which side of the lake you are on.

Aiding in the investigation on Lake Tahoe is the University of California, Davis. One of the lead investigators on that team is Katie Senft, a researcher from the UC-Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

“The ocean gets a lot of attention about plastic in the water, and our freshwater lakes don’t. This issue has flown under the radar in the Tahoe Basin,” Senft said. “When plastics enter the environment, be it terrestrial or aquatic, they stick around for a long time. We don’t know the long-term implications of having plastics in our water and in our soil,”.

Identifying a source

Now that researches are finally looking into microplastics, work can begin on removing them for polluted areas. But, that still doesn’t address how they got there in the first place. Researches are still unsure of a 100 percent proven answer, but they have a good idea of where to look. 

The leading idea of where microplastic come from is currently pointing in two directions, our washing machines and in the air. 

During the washing cycle, our clothes are beaten up and thrown around. A lot of clothing uses various types of plastics in the fabric. Over time, these plastics/fabrics are being worn down and are swept into the runoff after the wash cycle is complete. The other main issue is microplastics being carried by the wind. 

It’s almost impossible to be able to track where these plastics are being carried from. This is one idea that the DRI has addressed in relation to Lake Tahoe, that the wind is carrying them and they’re then stuck on the snow. When the snow melts at the end of the season, the plastic flood into the lake, leading to the pollution issue. The timing of the discovery in Lake Tahoe would line up with this theory. 

Preventative measures

Prior to the discovery in Lake Tahoe, steps were taken to try to guard against this potential pollutant. 

In 2015, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law called the Microbead-Free Waters Act. The move plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. These micro-pollutants have been an issue for more than 50 years, this is when plastics started to replace many natural products on the market. The United Nations Environment Programme first identified these potentially harmful beads decades ago, but measures were not taken around the globe until 2012. 

The United States was the first country in the world to introduce a law banning the use of microbeads. Since the law’s passing, Italy, the United Kingdom and New Zealand have introduced similar laws.

Fresh steps are currently being taken by the European Union to curb their reliance on these plastics. This past June, the European Chemicals Agency proposed a new to ban 90% of microplastics over the next 20 years. The move would cut 36,000 tons of microplastic use each year starting in 2020. 

Baskut Tuncak, a reporter for the UN who is covering the potential new law, commented on the proposal following the first hearing. 

“Microplastics are a growing concern to a number of human rights. The steps proposed by Echa are necessary to help ensure present and future generations can enjoy what is their human right: a clean, healthy and sustainable environment,” Tuncak said. 

Even though these new laws are being addressed by foreign countries, they can have a very real effect on the Tahoe Basin.

Earlier we addressed how a common theory is that microplastics are being carried over the wind. If these laws are enacted, it could help to either curb the issue or help researchers find out where the issue is stemming from.

An alternative choice

One way that we here at Tahoe Timber believe that we can help make a difference is through the elimination of unnecessary plastics. Especially the plastics that come in contact with water. This is just one reason that we feel so proud of our Driftwood line. 

In our Driftwood line sunglasses, all frames are made out of a base of 100 percent solid bamboo. One of the truly unique things about bamboo is that is floats on water, ensuring that the lake never claims another pair of sunglasses again, and thus potentially cutting down on unnecessary plastics in the lake. 

The Tahoe Timber way

Two of our favorite examples of these frames are the Chickadee 2.0s & the Fallen Leaf.

The Chickadee 2.0s come stocked with one of three different lens types, Dark Smoke, Purple or Rose Gold. These curvy frames play on the classic cat-eye style frame but give a fresh take on the style. 

The other pair of shades mentioned are the Fallen Leafs. The Fallen Leaf was built to model the classic Wayfair style, but with a thicker frame. Primarily, these frames either have a natural bamboo finish or have a darker one. Lens options depend on what color of grain you choose to have.

Regardless of your decision on which pair you’d like, at Tahoe Timber believe that even these fractional changes, can go a long way in preserving the environment. And hopefully, keeping harmful plastics like the recent microplastic discovery, out of Tahoe.

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