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3 Reasons Why Micro-Trash has a Big Impact (Especially for Wildlife!)

Siobhan Kenney
May 5, 2021
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You're probably familiar with the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. They teach us to know before you go, minimize campfire impacts, and pack out what we pack in, to leave a place better than we found it. When it comes to garbage, the Leave No Trace principles ask ask that we scour an area for micro-trash before leaving. But what exactly is micro-trash and besides being an eyesore, is it really a problem? Keep reading as we jump into the nitty-gritty world of micro-trash and discover why this tiny trash has a huge impact on our beautiful mountain home.

What is Micro-Trash?

Micro trash refers to small pieces of garbage that are often overlooked. It includes things like candy bar wrappers, bottle caps, cigarette butts, shards of glass, and can tabs. Even food scraps like sunflower seed hulls and orange peels are considered harmful micro-trash and should not be left behind. It takes a trained eye to spot this kind of trash but despite its size, micro-trash greatly impacts our land, water, and wildlife. 

Why is Micro-Trash a Problem?

1. It’s Dangerous for Wildlife to Ingest

Micro-trash is small enough to overlook but for wildlife, it’s the perfect bite sized morsel. Birds, fish, and animals often confuse micro-trash as food and end up ingesting large amounts of plastic, glass, and other harmful toxins. Just as you might imagine, these non-biodegradable items can be choking hazards and even cause dangerous internal blockages.

2. It Becomes Microplastic

When micro-trash is left out in the elements, it breaks down into even smaller particles called microplastic. And no surprise here, microplastic can be harmful to our environment. You can find these teeny, tiny plastic particles are found everywhere. They’re in our water, food, even the air! There’s not enough research to know if they pose a significant health threat to humans but they are especially dangerous to fish and birds.

3. It Hurts Our Watershed

Heavy rains and snowmelt pick up micro-trash and carry it into our watershed where it flows through rivers and creeks into our lakes and meadows. Truckee’s watershed is unique in that it does not flow into the Pacific Ocean. Unlike so many other watersheds in California, ours flows north and east to Pyramid Lake. But just because our water doesn’t end up in the ocean, doesn’t mean micro-trash is not a problem. It adds up over time, polluting our waterways, disrupting the watershed, and compromising our clean drinking water, the very same water that Truckee’s wildlife, birds, and fish rely on.

A Threat to California Condors

To see how harmful micro-trash can be to wildlife, look no further than the California Condor. This rare bird was once on the brink of extinction and today one of the biggest threats to the species is micro-trash. Why? Condors confuse micro-trash with bone fragments and seashells, two important sources of calcium for the birds. When ingested, it leads to starvation and death.

California Condor

How to Mind Your Micro-Trash

Now that we know micro-trash is a mega problem, what can we do to reduce it? There are plenty of actions we can take, ranging from prevention to litter cleanup. Most importantly, each and every one of us need to be mindful of the products we use and what gets left behind. Ready to Here are six steps you can take to be mindful of micro-trash and Keep Truckee Green. 

  • Follow Principle 1 of Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare. Plan ahead by bringing snacks that are easy to clean up. Avoid glass bottles that can shatter easily. Always prepare for full trash cans or dumpsters and have a plan to store garbage in a bear-proof container.
  • Follow Principle 3 of Leave No Trace: Dispose of Waste Properly. Always pack out what you pack in. Make it a game with kids to find all the little pieces of trash before leaving an early. 
  • BYOB - Bring Your Own BAG! Keep a bag on hand so that you can clean up trash. Pack out your own trash, and if you have safety equipment like gloves and hand sanitizer, clean up any other trash you see as well.     
  • Follow the #RecreateResponsibly guidelines. The seven guidelines are about protecting people and places as we recreate outdoors. They help us all take better care of our beloved Truckee community.
  • Pledge to #RespectTruckee and #RespectCalifornia. This travel code, developed by Visit California, is a great resource that details how you can be a respectful traveler wherever your travels take you.
  • Volunteer with Clean Up the Lake. This local nonprofit is tackling the trash that ends up in Truckee/Tahoe’s gorgeous mountain lakes. You won’t believe what’s lurking under the surface of the water.  In just a couple of weeks this summer, Clean Up the Lake removed nearly 2000 lbs of trash from Donner Lake! You can help them be a part of the solution. They offer various ways to help like becoming a volunteer diver, reporting trash, and adopting a mile of the lake.
Clean Up the Lake working on Donner Lake
Photo: Clean Up The Lake
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