Mike Pfaff has cleaned the beach in Upper Township’s Strathmere section three days a week for the past five summers, reaching down with a metal grabber and plucking litter out of the sand.

Upper Township does not rake its beaches with tractors, so three seasonal employees manually remove trash from among the sea grass and shells, filling their carts with plastic bottles and cigarette butts.

"That's a losing battle," said Pfaff of the cigarettes. "You could stay out here 24 hours a day and still not take care of it."

For the past 25 years, cigarettes have accounted for more than 30 percent of all beach litter items, according to Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that gathers statistics from beach clean-ups around the world.

In April, Clean Ocean Action, a coalition of 135 different school and environmental groups, released its annual report on the results of its beach sweeps over the previous year in New Jersey. In 2011, cigarettes fell from the top three most common pieces of litter for the first time in 19 years.

That is a positive not only for beachgoers but also for the environment as a whole, since cigarettes break down and release toxins that are can be consumed by animals.

At the same time, beach cleaners are noticing more plastic bottles, plastic bags and sandwich wrappers. One theory for why that would be is simply the growing prevalence of single-use plastic bottles and fast food containers.

Frank Riccioti, the public works director in Margate, believes more businesses delivering food to the beach is one reason his crews are finding more food wrappers along the shoreline.

"People think, 'Why should I pack up my cooler when I get someone to just bring it right to me?'" he said. "It's unbelievable."

Plastic items — from straws to candy wrappers and bottle caps — made up the majority of items Clean Ocean Action collected last year. Beaches that Clean Ocean Action volunteers cleaned included those in Atlantic City, Barnegat Township, Cape May, North Wildwood, Ocean City, Stone Harbor, Ventnor and Wildwood.

If swept out to sea, plastic can take hundreds of years to break down, and as it does it can release chemicals into the water and be consumed by marine life. Plastic is by far the most common debris floating in the world’s oceans. Estimates of how much is out there are in the hundreds of billions of pounds.

Governments and environmental advocacy groups in New Jersey have tried a variety of educational programs to keep people from littering and many have supplied more trash receptacles at beach entrances.

Beach towns are also much more thorough with cleaning beaches today than they ever were. Most use tractors to drag large rakes through the sand to pick up any litter every morning during tourist season.

But no matter how clean the beach is at the beginning of a summer day, it is loaded with trash again by the end.

"It's kept up, so by the time the bathers go out there, it's clean," said Wildwood Public Works Director Mark D'Amico, "and then at the end of day we have to start all over again. Vicious cycle."

Beach cleaning is not a cheap to provide, either. Atlantic City budgets about $1.3 million for beach and boardwalk cleaning, Ocean City about $900,000 and Wildwood Crest about $185,000.

Upper Township uses part of a $29,500 grant from the New Jersey Clean Communities Council to help pay for its beach cleaning in Strathmere.

Many people there Friday at the northern tip of Ludlam Island said they try to do their part when they visit.

Louisa Wisniewska and Dan Hangey, both of Montgomery County, Pa., were sitting a few feet from a mound of cigarette butts in the sand and not far from assorted foam and plastic that looked like it washed up in the surf.

"There are times when we take walks and I start picking up trash, and he won't want to come with me because he winds up carrying it," Wisniewska said.

Farther down the beach, Beth Mallak tried to solve a puzzle in a newspaper as she sat near a pair of goggles and plastic toys that someone forgot or left behind.

She said she chooses her beach based on its cleanliness, and she said she does what she can to keep it that way once she gets there.

"I'm a smoker, but I take every butt back with me," said Beth Mallak, of Bordentown, Burlington County, who was staying in Strathmere for the week. "I like to leave the beach as I found it."

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