Getting up early on a Saturday morning to pick up trash doesn't sound like a great way to spend a weekend.
But each year thousands of local volunteers head to the area's parks, streets, woods and beaches to clean up the messes others have made. Some come in groups from their school, church or business. Others make it a family event.
"We even get people from outside Hammonton," said Robert Reitmeyer, chairman of the Hammonton Environmental Commission, which hosted a cleanup at the Hammonton Lake Park on March 2.
Now in its fifth year, the event brings out about 100 volunteers. Even the first year, when it snowed, about 90 people came out, and not just for the free pizza.
"People will tell me, it's our park and no one else is going to clean it up," Reitmeyer said.
Cleanup coordinators, most of them volunteers themselves, say developing that sense of ownership and pride in their community is a key element in having a successful cleanup and a cleaner environment. People who take care of their parks, lakes, beaches and streets are less likely to litter on them.
"It is absolutely true that if people clean it up, they won't mess it up," Reitmeyer said.
But there is a lot of mess.
Rebecca Turygan, Environmental Research Assistant at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority said the ACUA has a $93,000 Clean Communities grant to buy gloves, bags and provide trash pickup for many cleanup events. In 2012, the ACUA assisted in 519 cleanups that generated 1,422 bags of trash, 992 bags of recyclables and 82 tires. More than 841 hours were logged by 2,220 volunteers, some just taking care of a street, others taking on beaches and parks.
"I do think that once an area has been cleaned up, it stays cleaner each year," Turygan said. "It is pretty amazing to see how many people will show up."
Middle Township will host its second community cleanup Saturday. Environmental Commission chairman Steve Atzert said they are still recruiting volunteers and have several sites around the township targeted for cleanups.
"We got school groups and even families last time," Atzert said. "But we need to do it again because we still haven't trained everyone to take their trash home rather than throw it out the car window."
A former employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atzert said instilling a "land ethic" in local residents is just as important as cleaning up trash.
"And people get to see more of their community," said Environmental Commission member Vilma Pombo, who is coordinating registration for this year's cleanup. Information is also posted on the Middle Township web site at middletownship.com
Hurricane Sandy created a lot of cleanup opportunities along the Jersey shore's beaches and marshes. Clean Ocean Action in Highlands has started monthly Wave of Action Days to encourage groups to clean up the shore. The next event is March 23 and events are already scheduled in Cape May, Tuckerton Seaport and Long Beach Island.
"We are focusing on ecosystems and habitat this month to get sites ready for spring," said Lindsay McNamara, program and communications associate for Clean Ocean Action. She said debris from homes and boardwalks still litter a lot of areas, so cleanups are crucial.
Groups that want to host or volunteer for a cleanup can find a listing on the Wave of Action website at fortheshore.org. Clean Ocean Action will help with organization and publicity, then the host group runs the actual event.
"We started in December and have been able to bring in volunteers from all over," McNamara said.
Still, most cleanups are local residents cleaning up their hometowns.
Egg Harbor City mayor Lisa Jiampetti organized the first community cleanup when she was first elected to the City Council. Six years later she is planning the now annual event held on the first Saturday in May. Last year almost 500 people turned out.
"I do a lot of walking and I see a lot of trash on the streets," Jiampetti said. "It makes the city look horrible. I just had a vision one day to have everyone come out to clean up the town. I thought of all the clubs and non-profit groups and wrote to them asking for help."
She agrees that if people help clean up their town they will be less likely to trash it. She said churches, service organizations, youth clubs and student groups are annual participants, and food provided by the "Secret Sisters" group is an added bonus.
Jiampetti said what she would really like is for residents to think of cleaning up as an ongoing activity, not just a once a year event.
"I would like to see more, even if's people just cleaning up their own street," she said.
Contact Diane D'Amico: