There was plenty of time for serious discussion about discarded plastic bags in public parks, about trash in urban waterways and ways to ensure school buildings recycle as much paper as possible.

And the annual Environmental Exchange included plenty of hands-on opportunities for 130 students from across the state to pick up litter, participate in scavenger hunts and learn ways in which they can become better stewards of the land they will one day inherit.

The event is run each year through the New Jersey Clean Communities Council (NJCCC), which works to ensure a strong cross-section of students from throughout the state participate in the program. This year, there were 130 students from 11 schools in attendance, said NJCCC Executive Director Sandy Huber, who secures new host communities each year and oversees every facet of the program.

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Students began their work this morning on the sands in Ortley Beach, as they battled frigid winds to scour for discarded items. Everything was collected into large plastic bags and handed off to the Toms River Department of Public Works, which will recycle what it can and send the rest to a landfill. From there, the students went to Cattus Island County Park, with stunning vistas of Barnegat Bay, for lunch and more activities.

The work resumed back at a local hotel, where the students attended various workshops and made presentations of ways in which they can educate peers about becoming more environmentally aware and active. That activity, too, included plenty fun, as organizers included a disc jockey in the mix.

For Nicholas Diambrosio, 14, an eighth grader at Williamstown Middle School in Monroe, Gloucester County, this is the second consecutive year he has participated in the Environmental Exchange. It is part of his involvement in the school’s “Braves Club,” which addresses such pressing issues as dwindling pollination and toxic algae blooms.

Diambrosio spent the morning picking up various items from the beach, from wood, to rope to dog poop. “Yup, I was wearing gloves and we picked up stuff with a claw,” he said, with a laugh. “This is all part of my goal of becoming an environmental leader in Monroe and teaching my friends about the importance of recycling and keeping public areas clean.”

His buddy, Michael Martino, 13, chimed in, adding, that Braves Club is a lot of fun, “identifying what is wrong and figuring out how to fix it.” The boys noted the most fun of the morning was trying to identify a piece of wood they found on the beach, which carried a strange amount of rusted hooks, nails, nuts and bolts. “Hey, maybe its from a pirate ship,” Martino said. “Or probably a pier.”

One teacher enjoying the scene was Giselle Gomes, who teaches biology at Passaic High School. She runs the school’s environmental sciences club and has ongoing projects with the students participating in the Environmental Exchange. Six of them are pushing for a large recycling bin at the high school for all the wasted paper, while the others are trying to educate bodega owners and the public about how those small plastic shopping bags blow around public parks.

“This program is a great way for students across the state to work together to solve problems,” Gomes said, as she watched the kids run around Cattus Island getting to know one another. “This is a great opportunity for our students, from an urban school, to come out here and to enjoy the beach, while learning valuable lessons.”

Learn more about the NJCCC at NJClean.org