Carolyn Usinger is an Incline Village resident dedicated to keeping trash out of Lake Tahoe. She patrols highways 28, 50, and 431 two to three times each week, picking up any trash she sees along the way.
“One piece is good enough for me to stop,” she says. Usinger has been running this trash clean-up operation for more than three years and has now picked up more than 150,000 pieces of litter, she says.
After a year of disposing her roadside-collected trash in the Nevada Department of Transportation dumpster, she was told to stop using it. Usinger argued that the trash was collected from NDOT’s roads and therefore should be disposed of in their dumpster. An officer proceeded to write her a ticket as Usinger unloaded the litter she had collected into the dumpster. Usinger then found out it was not just a ticket and that she would have to go to court. The same occurrence happened again one day before her scheduled court appearance, and she received a second ticket for illegal dumping.
In court that day, Usinger was under the impression that she would get off scot-free. She pleaded no contest to both counts. The judge ordered her to serve eight hours of community service for each charge but waived her time and thanked her for her service to the community. The judge then convicted her on both counts of illegal dumping, putting two misdemeanors on her permanent record.
Usinger explained that she did not fully understand that she was being convicted of misdemeanors in court that day, otherwise she would have objected. “It never occurred to me that this would follow me around,” she says.
After the conviction, Usinger said she felt complete anger and depression. The incident made her reconsider whether she would continue to pick up trash in Tahoe. She battled between finding a way to turn the situation positive and succumbing to the depression and anger she felt knowing she couldn’t get rid of the misdemeanors. She felt that she was treated unfairly, and that the system had failed her and the community.
It wasn’t long before community support began pouring in, with many people thanking Usinger for serving the community, and siding with her, claiming the misdemeanors were unfair. Court Leve, a local videographer, created a short documentary telling Usinger’s story. The video circulated online and positive comments and support for Usinger continued to build. Usinger says she would have quit without this support from the community; instead, she is inspired to keep going.
Usinger decided to work on shifting the situation into a positive one and continue her mission to make Tahoe trash free. She told Moonshine Ink that when she sees a biker, she wants that biker to have a beautiful bike ride, and when she sees a hiker, she wants that hiker to have a beautiful hike. So, she is continuing to pick up trash to make the world a better and more beautiful place.
Usinger began going to community meetings to spread her ideas about how people can pick up trash in Tahoe. At a meeting for the Incline Village General Improvement District, the district agreed to work with her on a program that envisions zero trash in Tahoe.
A key component of the program is implementing “Hero Sticks,” walking sticks combined with a trash grabber and trash bag. These tools make it easy for hikers to pick up trash along their journey and collect it in a bag that can be dumped in designated Incline Village dumpster or personal home trash cans.
Hero Sticks are available at the visitors center in Incline, as well as at the Incline Village branch of the Washoe County library, with more locations coming soon. Usinger also encourages everyone to keep a reusable trash bag in their car so they can pick up roadside trash when they see it. She says everyone can “be a hero” by pitching in to pick up trash.
Part of Usinger’s vision for Zero Trash Tahoe is to implement educational material on how trash is affecting Lake Tahoe and how people can properly dispose of their trash and the trash they find. She plans to do this by working with local businesses, and has created an educational game that shows where trash does and doesn’t belong. For more information about Zero Trash Tahoe, go to zerotrashtahoe.us.
By her own estimates, Usinger believes that a third of the litter in the area is from visitors, a third from businesses, and a third from residents, and that it is everyone’s responsibility to pick it up. The words of encouragement, comments online, and honks and waves from passing cars continue to encourage Usinger, but what she appreciates the most is when people pick up trash when they see it.
“I want people who are driving around Tahoe to say, ‘What a beautiful place,’ and not see trash,” she says.