If this long, snowy winter has you longing for the Jersey Shore - the real thing, not the MTV reality series - get ready to take part in Beach Sweeps 25. Sandy Hook-based Clean Ocean Action has sponsored Beach Sweeps for 25 years, the longest running cleanup of its kind in the world.

Beach Sweeps began in 1985 with 75 people on a single stretch of sand. By 2008, more than 5,100 people in 63 locations had collected almost 290,000 pieces of debris weighing an estimated 36,000 pounds!

Volunteers gather around a site "captain" and comb the sand for trash. Each piece is recorded on a data card. Cards are then sorted to build a snapshot of the biggest trash problems that year. From year to year, these snapshots show us how our beaches are faring.

For example, here are the eight most common types of debris in 2007 and 2008: cigarette filters (41,900 pieces collected in 2008), plastic caps and lids (33,282), plastic food wrappers and bags (31,145), plastic pieces (19,616), plastic straws and stirrers (17,957), foam plastic pieces (12,416), plastic beverage bottles (11,474) and plastic cigar tips (6,679).

And how about the "Roster of the Ridiculous," which highlights some of the craziest trash picked up by volunteers? In 2008 they found 500 pounds of lumber, a bottle of Holy Water, a high chair, a $20 bill, containers from Asia, a full jar of mayonnaise, a refrigerator door, a vacuum and a brace from an old ship. They also uncovered a 1977 Bradley Beach badge … in Point Pleasant.

Trash on the beach has a lasting impact. Each of those 41,000 cigarette filters, for example, takes from one to five years to decompose. Plastic soda or water bottles can take 450 years to break down, and fishing lines can take a whopping 600 years!

We all know that our 127-mile shoreline is one of our state's natural - and economic - treasures. Beach Sweeps help the state's economy by keeping our beaches attractive.

For critters, the benefits of clean beaches are direct and obvious. Birds, fish and other animals can become tangled in plastic bags or fishing line, or mistake debris in the sand and water as food. Cigarette filters, for example, dance along in the water like little fish, and have been found in birds and larger fish. They can be deadly because they can impede or block digestion, and trap harmful chemicals in an animal's body.

Beach Sweep 25 kicks off this year on Saturday, April 24, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., rain or shine. Choose from over 60 locations up and down the Jersey Shore, or register your own site with Clean Ocean Action. If you can't make the spring sweep, join the fall sweep on October 23. Plans are in the works to take beach sweeps international!

Volunteers of all ages are welcome to just show up at cleanup sites, although groups of 10 or more are asked to register in advance. Bring garden or latex gloves, dress for the weather and wear closed, hard-soled shoes.

A complete listing of sites, as well as the other information you'll need, can be found at Clean Ocean Action's website at www.cleanoceanaction.org. You can also call them at 732-872-0111, or e-mail Tavia Danch at education@cleanoceanaction.org 

And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation's website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey's precious land and natural resources.