Each year over 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced across the globe. While plastic has become an invaluable part of our everyday life, the negative impacts have become very apparent. Plastics find their way into the natural environment and easily degraded into smaller and smaller fragments by UV light and physical abrasion from wind and waves. Very small pieces of plastic (<5 mm or the size of a grain of rice) are known as microplastics. Research has shown microplastics are entering the food chain, leaching chemicals, and showing up in soils and drinking water.
While plastics have been extensively studied in marine environments since the late 1970's, the impact of plastics in freshwater systems is still relatively unknown. In summer 2018, TERC researchers conducted the first sampling around Lake Tahoe to quantify microplastics in beach sand. Microplastics were found at all beaches sampled, although in relatively low levels compared to other U.S. waterbodies such as the Great Lakes and Tennessee River. TERC looks to continue this work in summer 2019 and study the contribution of various sources of microplastics into the Lake Tahoe watershed.