By Gabby Dodd
Desert Research Institute scientists are conducting a new study with help from the League to Save Lake Tahoe and volunteers to determine if clothing dryers are a source in releasing microplastic pollution into the environment.
In 2019, DRI and the League discovered microplastic pollution in Lake Tahoe for the first time. These plastics, which are commonly 5 millimeters or less in size, typically break down from larger pieces of plastic but do not biodegrade. The pollution was even found in snow in a fairly remote area north of Truckee. The DRI explains that microplastics are just beginning to be understood. However, it is known that microplastics can pose threats to wildlife and human health because they can be breathed in and are potentially toxic, causing harm to ecosystems.
“When we dry our clothes, we know that we have that dryer lint catcher inside of our dryer and we know that is catching a lot of material, but it’s not necessarily catching everything,” Monica Arienzo, Assistant Research Professor of Hydrology at DRI and leader of the study, said.
According to Arienzo, lots of studies have been conducted on the washing process and how plastics get through the waterways, but not on the drying process.
Nine volunteers each have installed a mesh screen on the outside of their house’s dryer vent and are recording each time they dry their clothes. These volunteers are also letting the scientists know the materials their clothes are made from. After three weeks, the mesh screens will be sent to DRI for analysis to determine what percentage of the lint is plastic versus natural fibers.
The DRI is also receiving feedback about the mesh screens to see if these products could potentially be provided to the community in the future to help people reduce their impacts on the environment.
“We wouldn’t have modern medicine if it wasn’t for plastics. A lot of my previous research I wouldn’t be able to do if we didn’t have plastics,” Arienzo said. “But we as individuals can do a lot to reduce the plastics we use in our daily lives.”
Arienzo suggests hang-drying clothes, using Cora Balls in the washing process to capture small plastics, as well as reducing single-use materials through simple actions like taking your own mug to the coffee shop and not flushing contact lenses down the toilet.
Other groups around the lake are tackling trash problems as well. The organization Clean Up the Lake plans to use SCUBA to remove trash from 72 miles of Lake Tahoe’s sub-surface shoreline in September 2021. The clean-up date was pushed back due to COVID-19.
In 2018 and 2019, SCUBA divers removed roughly 1,000 pounds of trash during two test clean-ups in only a mile of shoreline.
The trash that has and is planned to be removed from the lake will help get rid of plastic before it breaks into smaller pieces that often end up in the stomachs of fish and birds, which can cause health problems.
The organization also plans to launch a similar clean-up effort in Belize in 2022 which they are calling “voluntourism.”
To learn more about the DRI visit: www.dri.edu
League to Save Lake Tahoe: www.keeptahoeblue.org
Clean Up the Lake: www.cleanupthelake.org
Learn more about microplastics in this infographic from DRI.