Opinion: Of course there’s plastic in Lake Tahoe. It’s pretty much everywhere

Bob Kingman, left, and Dennis Liebl, paddle out of Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe.
(Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times)

File this one under “Doesn’t surprise me one bit.”

Researchers say they have discovered microplastics in samples of the “pristine” waters of this high Sierra lake, which is made up almost entirely of melted snow. If microplastic has managed to invade the ice floating in the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, then it seems reasonable, even likely, that it would turn up in a lake alongside a full-sized city and a bunch of casinos in a region that gets as many as 15 million visitors a year.

Visitors produce trash, and trash generally contains a great deal of disposable plastic — like empty snack wrappers, milk jugs, broken toys, used-up gift cards and too many other single-use plastic items to list here. Even if the vast majority of it were discarded properly, surely some of it will find its way into the lake — say, an empty water bottle tossed over the side of a boat, or flip-flops lost by a child splashing around at one of the lake’s sandy beaches.

Microplastic is what becomes of plastic items that are not recycled or burned. Made from petroleum and natural gas, plastic does not biodegrade like paper or food waste, but breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. And since very little of the approximately 83 billion metric tons of plastic that have been produced in the past 70 years has been recycled, that’s a lot of microplastic floating around out there.


It’s unsettling to be surrounded by the plastic residue of humanity, to be sure, but is it dangerous? We just don’t know yet.

The discoveries of the proliferation of microplastic into every corner of the Earth, including our drinking water and food supplies, are still fairly recent. But it doesn’t seem likely that we can get away with pumping out 300 million pounds of plastic a year without paying some sort of environmental health costs.