The things that wash up or get left behind at New Jersey beaches no longer shock the volunteers of nonprofit Clean Ocean Action: diapers, tampon applicators, syringes, appliances, and blood vials among them.
The coalition of 125 organizations coordinated beach sweeps of 70 locations in the spring and fall of 2017, collecting 373,686 pieces of debris. Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, released the data Thursday during a news conference in Sandy Hook.
But Clean Ocean Action, which has run a census of the sickening for 32 years, said that last year was a record-breaker in terms of volume of plastic debris on New Jersey beaches. About 85 percent of all the debris was plastic or foam. And two-thirds of the debris was in the form of single-use plastic. The coalition says its collection is a testament to the explosive growth of disposable, single-use containers such as water bottles and plastic bags.
High schoolers, college students, professionals, and other volunteers combed beaches in Atlantic City, Avalon, Cape May, Brigantine, Ocean City, and other familiar Shore towns. Some sweeps were also conducted on rivers, lakes, and streams. They'll soon launch the first 2018 sweep and the data from each item will be tabulated and used to help analyze the debris over time.
Zipf said the data are important because they show the extent of the problem and raise awareness. Debris, especially plastics, plague the marine ecosystem and the problem is growing, she said.
"It's not only ugly; it's harmful," Zipf added.
Among the "Dirty Dozen" most commonly collected items: plastic pieces, lids, candy wrappers, straws, foam chunks, plastic beverage bottles, and plastic bags from stores. Other items include cigarette and cigar tips or filters, paper, and lumber.
In fact, the debris seeing the biggest increases were foam pieces, plastic straws, tampon applicators, and condoms. Those seeing decreases: diapers, lumber, and glass bottles.
Clean Ocean Action urges beachgoers to also refuse single-use plastics because they are derived from fossil fuels, take years to break down, leach toxic elements as they degrade, entangle or kill marine animals and birds, and enter the food chain through animals. Balloons were another common item. One Mylar balloon the group collected was from Harriton High School in Lower Merion.
The problem of plastic is not just down the Shore. Last spring, Jay Kelly, a professor at Raritan Valley Community College, took his class to the banks of the Delaware River in Cinnaminson for a sweep. They logged 7,917 pieces of debris in collaboration with Clean Ocean Action. Of that, almost 4,000 were single-use plastic bottles. But the bottles were just the start. They also pulled out three dozen tires, traffic cones, giant plastic barrels, a playground slide, and a number of other items.