Nearly one year ago, a nonprofit launched an unprecedented effort to remove trash from Lake Tahoe's entire 72-mile-long shoreline. On Tuesday, it completed its mission.
Clean Up the Lake ended up removing 24,797 pieces of litter weighing a combined 25,281 pounds from the treasured alpine lake on the California-Nevada border.
Since the 72-mile cleanup effort kicked off on May 14, 2021, Clean Up the Lake's team of staff and volunteers spent dozens of days pulling everything from beer cans and beach towels to engagement rings and a cordless house phone from the water near shore.
"It’s been an absolute whirlwind of hard work and good times," Clean Up the Lake founder and executive director Colin West said. "Overall, just super excited to be coming into the finish line, honored to be completing a project to this scale. Thankful, of course, to the team, our staff, board, volunteers and other supporters to the project as well."
Get a weekly recap of the latest San Francisco Bay Area housing news. Sign up for NBC Bay Area’s Housing Deconstructed newsletter.
During a cleanup day, the nonprofit's team of scuba divers meticulously combed the lakebed up to depths of 25 feet, collecting small items such as plastic bottles and lost sunglasses in mesh bags. Larger pieces of litter like construction debris and boat parts were pulled out with the help of team members on the lake's surface in boats and on jet skis.
"We filled our travel trailer full of that litter numerous times," West said. "It's crazy. We had 80 different days on the lake, and I'd say every two to three days we would almost fill a 10- to 12-foot travel trailer full of litter."
|72-Mile Cleanup By the Numbers||(per Clean Up the Lake)|
|Number of items removed||24,797|
|Weight of items removed (pounds)||25,281|
|Number of dive days||81|
|Number of tires removed||171|
|Number of aluminum cans removed||4,527|
|Number of golf balls/tennis balls removed||468|
|Number of anchors removed||127|
|Number of sunglasses removed||295|
The nonprofit sorted and categorized the recovered items to better understand the littering problem as a whole. Items that could be recycled were sent to the proper facilities, while anything still in good shape was reused. West said he scored a couple nice pairs of sunglasses. Another team member went home with a fishing pole that still had shrink wrap on it.
Some pieces of litter were saved and will be transformed into an art piece with a special message for the community.
"The message behind that obviously is for them to see the litter, see the effort that has gone into pulling this litter out of the lake and sharing a little bit of that story that went into that," West said. "But then also by seeing that, by seeing the effort, hopefully really being in their face to realize that it is a problem."
West said people who have made the choice to toss a can or other piece of garbage into the water over the years aren't the only ones responsible.
"I think one thing that I really want to drive home is so many people hear about this work and their first reaction is, ‘How could they? Those disgusting human beings that intentionally pollute.’ Yeah, there is intentional littering that is out there…but I would argue that the majority of the litter that we pull out is simply from us having a presence in this basin the last 50 to 100 years," West said. "We have an impact. We all do. The sunglasses that I have on the counter, I guarantee you someone’s not tossing off a $300 pair of sunglasses."
West understands that accidents happen, but he encourages people to be more careful and to be mindful of the negative consequences that can arise after something like a water bottle or hat flies off a boat and ends up in the water.
"They deteriorate and they’re made of plastic fibers and can cause microplastics," West said. "We are all part of this problem."
While the 72-mile cleanup effort is in the books, Clean Up the Lake's work is far from over.
West said the nonprofit has at least four future lake cleanups lined up. Two will be return trips to Donner Lake and the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe for expanded litter removal projects. The other two will be first-time cleanup efforts at Fallen Leaf Lake near South Lake Tahoe and June Lake in Mono County.
"We are just getting started," West said. "So many people thought, ‘Oh, so you’re done after this project?’ That couldn’t be further from the truth. This is our first big splash. We’re only going to grow from here.”