OCEAN GROVE - Armed with plastic buckets and garbage bags, volunteers spread out on the Ocean Grove beach early Saturday morning, in search of all types of trash.
"We've got to do a better job of stewarding this planet," said Ocean Grove resident Mike Goldstein. "Microplastics are a huge problem. We are killing ourselves."
Pulling aside a clump of seaweed, Goldstein quickly found six small pieces of plastic embedded there. He scooped them up and put them in a bucket.
Goldstein was one of nearly 4,000 volunteers who came out on a chilly morning to remove trash from 60 beaches and park areas up and down the coast. They were part of a cleanup crew that participated in Clean Ocean Action's annual spring Beach Sweeps.
Volunteers were checked in and received an itemized list to check off, depending on what type of garbage they found.
Sisters Julen and Mareen Kirols of Marlboro said they had found food wrappers and shopping bags on the Ocean Grove beach.
Julen, 14, and Mareen, 10, said they decided to help clean the beach because they are involved in the Girl Scouts and SOS, a service club in Marlboro schools.
"I think it's a nice thing to do," Julen Kirols said.
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Nearby, Grace Grimaldi and her mother, Laraine, had just started picking up trash on the northern end of Ocean Grove's beach.
The Grimaldis, who live in the Parlin section of Old Bridge, said they come to the beach in Ocean Grove each summer so decided to volunteer there.
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"I've been getting into environmental stuff, so I wanted to come do this," Grace Grimaldi said. The mother and daughter team had found bottle caps, a lighter and cigarette butts in their first few minutes on the beach.
Preliminary data from Saturday's Sandy Hook beach sweep included 175 volunteers who picked up 4,254 food or candy wrappers and bags; 3797 plastic pieces; 3,777 plastic bottle caps or lids; 1,425 plastic straws or drink stirrers and 1,019 foam pieces, according to Allison Tully, marketing and communications coordinator for Clean Ocean Action.
Volunteers also collected 63 disposable face masks; 8 reusable face masks; 16 disposable gloves and 27 disposable wipes on the Sandy Hook beaches, Tully said.
Unusual items found by beach cleaners at Sandy Hook included a traffic cone; a plastic spider ring; a mini fridge; a toilet brush; a dustpan; a measuring spoon; a GI Joe doll; dentures and cassette tapes.
Last fall, Clean Ocean Action Beach Sweeps volunteers collected 185,221 pieces of trash, of which 134,272 pieces were plastic, according to a report by the nonprofit group. See a video from a previous beach sweep above this story.
The greatest source of pollution on these beaches — making up 72% of the litter collected — comes from plastic: shopping bags, food wrappers, bottles and caps, among other sources.
Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She's also passionate about the Shore's storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle,firstname.lastname@example.org.