NSights Blog

The not-so-micro problem of plastic pollution, and how you can help

Join microplastics pollution researchers at river walk, Nov. 5

Let’s face it, plastics are omnipresent in our everyday lives. It is increasingly difficult to point to objects around us that do not contain at least a small amount of plastic.

Given the range and versatility of uses and applications for plastics, it is not surprising that society has whole-heartedly embraced these materials. Plastics can be found in your car tires, clothing, food wrappers, disposable water bottles, paint and even some tea bags. Often, plastics offer convenience in our busy lives, and they are cheap and disposable.

A large pile of litter on the dirt.
Sorting through litter from the bottom of Lake Tahoe with Clean Up the Lake. Photo credit: Monica Arienzo.

But what happens to the plastic we discard? The honest answer: most plastics are added to landfills, where they will take decades or centuries to break down. In 2018, only 8.6% of plastics was recycled; a larger percentage (15.7%) of discarded plastics was burned for energy [1], and the remaining 75.7% was landfilled. Despite producing more plastic each year, the trend for recycling plastics is decreasing, with just 5-6% of plastic recycled in 2021 [2]. It is estimated that 22% of plastic is “disposed of in uncontrolled dumpsites, burned in open pits or leaked into the environment” [3]. This is equal to 83.6 million tons of plastic released to the environment each year. That’s over 167 billion pounds. Each year. Every year. Together, this means that we are continually making more plastic and plastic pollution, to add on to the already accumulating piles of plastic waste.

When released to the environment, plastics can be carried around by water and wind, moving plastics from areas of high concentrations to more pristine areas. Ultimately, most plastic pollution is washed into the oceans, where it sinks to the ocean floor or accumulates at the ocean surface in a rotating current.

Two people on a beach with an orange bucket near the lakeshore sampling water to test.
DRI researchers sample for microplastics in Lake Tahoe. Photo Credit: Meghan Collins, MSc.

During transport, plastic materials are broken down into smaller pieces, called microplastics. These smaller plastic particles are lighter than larger plastic debris, making it easier to transport them in the environment and expanding the area they can impact.

There are shocking images of dissected fish stomachs full of small plastic particles, but the effects of microplastics on wildlife is just the start of the issue. Because of their small size, microplastics are extremely difficult to clean up. Much more effort is needed to remove the same amount of plastic from the environment if microplastic particles are cleaned up versus larger plastic debris.

Many cleanup efforts do not have the resources, whether human, time or equipment resources, to completely remove microplastics. Additionally, microplastics are chemically altered by exposure to the sun and chemicals in the environment. These alterations change how microplastics behave chemically in the environment, and have been shown to increase the ability of microplastics to take up and hold toxic chemicals on their surfaces. The microplastic-toxin combo can then be transported in the environment, making the microplastic particle a way for toxic chemicals to be moved around in the environment.

Since microplastics have a lot of surface area due to their small size and large numbers, microplastic particles can carry more toxins than larger plastic debris. All of this leads to not only the presence of a long-term pollutant, but the presence of a pollutant that is globally transported, difficult and costly to remove, and potentially carries large amounts of toxic chemicals with it in the environment.

Microplastics are truly a global issue. A few recent studies have shown that microplastics have been found at the summit of Mount Everest, in the Mariana Trench, on Antarctica, in the air we breathe and the food we eat, and in our tap water. Microplastics have even been found in human blood.

Unfortunately, the Truckee Meadows and Lake Tahoe are not exceptions. Microplastics have been found in Lake Tahoe’s surface water, stormwater, beach sediment and snow [4]. The League to Save Lake Tahoe has removed over 43,000 pounds of litter from Lake Tahoe’s shorelines [5] and Clean Up the Lake has removed over 25,000 pounds of litter from the bottom of the lake [6]. Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful removed over 35 tons of litter and green waste during their 2022 Truckee River clean up event [7].

Woman standing in snow gear on top of a snowy landscape using a tool to take some of the snow for sampling.
Monica Arienzo samples for microplastics in Sierra Nevada snow. Photo Credit: Sasha Karapetrova.

With the growing awareness of plastic pollution in the environment, there has been an uptick in policies to address the issue of plastic waste internationally [8], nationally and locally. For example, South Lake Tahoe recently banned single-use plastic water bottles [9]. However, many questions remain about the presence of microplastics in our waterways, and more research needs to be done.

What can you do to help the problem? Here are five steps you can take to reduce your plastic use, with more suggestions available from Desert Research Institute:

  • Swap out single-use plastics for reusable products or natural materials. Bring your own mug to the coffee shop, and swap products that come in plastic bottles for bars, such as bar soap and bar shampoo, or refillable containers.
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle. Follow local recycling guides to ensure you are recycling correctly. Reuse materials when possible.
  • Don’t litter. This may seem obvious, but unfortunately a lot of litter is still found in the environment, including cigarette butts. Cigarette filters are synthetic materials that break down.
  • Carpool to reduce tire wear. You can also choose tires that have a higher wear resistance.
  • Employ products to catch microfibers in your washer or filters on your washer lines. Reduce how often you wash your synthetic clothing, and we recommend hang drying your clothes.
  • Support local groups and businesses committed to generating less plastic waste and using sustainable practices. Reusable Reno maintains a list of businesses in Reno dedicated to these goals.

Join us as we discuss microplastics in our region in more detail at the upcoming fall River Walk event, hosted by Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful. The one-mile River Walk will take place on Saturday, Nov. 5, 10 – 11 a.m., at Mayberry Park, and will be followed by a voluntary cleanup. Be sure to reserve your spot at the event today. We look forward to seeing you there!

[1] https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data

[2] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-us-recycled-just-5-percent-of-its-plastic-in-2021-180980052/

[3] https://www.oecd.org/environment/plastics/

[4] https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/0a2ceba61c47470e8e18566268f9bfcf

[5] https://www.keeptahoeblue.org/combat-pollution/

[6] https://cleanupthelake.org/

[7] https://www.ktmb.org/cleanups

[8] https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/what-you-need-know-about-plastic-pollution-resolution

[9] https://www.tahoedailytribune.com/news/south-lake-tahoe-bans-single-use-plastic-water-bottles/

About the authors

Sarrah M. Dunham-Cheatham is a research assistant professor with the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is director of the Core Analytical Laboratory, part of the College’s Experiment Station research unit.

Sarrah earned her doctoral degree in geochemistry from the University of Notre Dame, and a bachelor’s degree in soil science and hydrology from Purdue University. 

Monica Arienzo is an associate research professor in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute. She leads the Microplastics and Environmental Chemistry Laboratory.

Monica earned a doctoral degree in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Miami.

Headshots of Sarrah and Monica
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