Two hula hoops. A pitchfork. One hundred and seventy-six syringes. A pink flamingo.

These were just some of more than 218,000 items volunteers picked up from the beaches and bays of New Jersey last year during Clean Ocean Action’s biannual Beach Sweeps.

There were also 5,564 plastic shopping bags and 20,979 food and candy wrappers.

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About 81 percent of the trash collected was plastic, according to the report released this week ahead of the nonprofit organization’s next cleanup Saturday.

The ubiquitous material is one of the biggest threats to marine life, Clean Ocean Action founder and Executive Director Cindy Zipf said.

“It certainly keeps the beaches littered, which is not a good thing. It makes them ugly and not very pleasant. But the real harm has been to marine life because the plastics look ugly, but for them it’s harmful or lethal through entanglement or ingestion. And that’s on us,” Zipf said.

On Saturday, Zipf expects nearly 4,000 volunteers to come out to the 60 beach sweep locations along New Jersey’s coast.

Gretchen Whitman, director of the New Jersey Audubon Nature Center of Cape May, said she has been participating for the last 20 years.

“We do these beaches, we participate, and then my heart actually breaks when a week later there’s a storm and we see that trash continues to accumulate,” Whitman said. “If we didn’t do these cleanups, I can’t even fathom how bad it can get.”

For Whitman, the partnership with Clean Ocean Action is an effective way to fight pollution.

“We recognized that Clean Ocean Action has this voice. They are collecting the data and that’s significant to be able to record and look at trends,” she said.

Whitman said the solution will be changing behaviors, including making a choice to stop using plastics.

“Life isn’t always convenient,” she said, adding more cleanups couldn’t hurt either.

Clean Ocean Action’s first Beach Sweep was 1985 in Sandy Hook.

“The beaches were trashed. There was just so much trash washing up on our beaches, bottles and cans and miscellaneous litter,” Zipf said.

Over the years, the event has maintained its popularity. What has changed, though, is the type of waste collected by the volunteers: Plastic is way more prevalent today.

“We have reduced many of the large sources of debris, but were still finding that because today we’re a much more single-use, throw-away society,” Zipf said. “Plastic bottles were kind of rare in the beginning.”

The annual report, compiled with data from volunteers who keep track of the waste they collect during the sweep, includes a “Roster of the Ridiculous.”

It includes: a full set of upper dentures, a selfie stick, two door frames, a pickup truck bed cover, an E-ZPass tag, tweezers, a fake fingernail and a fake mustache. There was also a pregnancy test, a plastic slide to a swing set, three fake Christmas trees, a laundry basket and a shower curtain.

Food and candy packaging made up 10 percent of the total collected trash. Caps and lids were about 11 percent, and plastic pieces were about 13 percent. Cigarette filters were 9 percent.

After the waste is collected, it is either recycled or brought to a landfill.

Zipf said the cleanups remain important because every piece of plastic that has made it into the ocean likely remains there today.

“There’s no real system-wide program to get it out of the ocean once it gets there, so it’s so important to get it before it gets out,” she said.

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609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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