By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Kevin Mertz, who moved to Sea Isle City four years ago along with his family, says he loves the beaches, the boating, the restaurants, the bars and everything else about the shore town. Except one thing – the litter.
Avid joggers and bicyclists, Mertz and his wife, Lynn, have made it a habit to clean up the litter that they see while taking their runs and bike rides.
“Every single day we pick up trash. Every single day. There’s not a day goes by that there’s not trash, whether it’s on Central (Avenue), where people just clearly throw it right out of their cars, or when we’re running on the Promenade, we pick up trash,” Mertz said.
He complained about the litter in remarks to City Council during a meeting Tuesday. To underscore his concerns, he gave the Council members a packet of photos that he took over the summer showing trash lying on the ground in different areas of town.
“It’s cups, it’s beer bottles, it’s napkins, it’s cigarette butts, you name it, but it’s every single day,” he said of the trash he routinely encounters.
In an interview after the meeting, Mertz said he hopes City Council will work with Sea Isle’s Environmental Commission and Green Team on eco-friendly initiatives to reduce litter. Mertz has already reached out to the Environmental Commission and Green Team members to see what he can do.
“To allow it to continue, is just in my mind, a crime,” he said.
Mertz warned of not only the environmental harm caused by litter, but also said he is worried that it could damage Sea Isle’s tourism industry by creating a bad impression on vacationers.
“We’re lucky, we live here. So every day we can walk to the marsh, we can go to the beach. The people that wait all year for a week (of vacation) here so they can enjoy the Promenade to walk on it, run on it, bike on it, I can’t imagine what they think when they see the garbage all over the Promenade. The pictures, I think, speak for themselves,” he told Council.
Mertz, who lives on Cini Street near 36th Street, called the Promenade “ground zero” for litter. He believes the city should install a “litter camera” on the Promenade to keep an eye on the area.
“The center of the Promenade, it’s the worst,” he told Council. “I don’t really even understand what people are thinking. … I just think, really, it’s repulsive. This is not a one-time incident. I see it all the time because I’m there all the time.”
Council President J.B. Feeley spoke to Mertz after the meeting, telling him that Sea Isle has been waiting for the state Legislature to pass an environmentally friendly bill that would ban single-use plastic and paper carryout bags as well as Styrofoam food containers to help reduce litter.
The Senate approved the proposed bill on Monday, but the Assembly did not vote on it. Since Monday was the last day of the legislative session, the bill will have to be reintroduced when the Senate and Assembly reconvene for the new session.
In the meantime, dozens of municipalities in New Jersey have adopted their own local laws banning plastic bags, Styrofoam food containers and plastic straws.
Early last year, Feeley urged his fellow Council members to support his proposal for a local ordinance that would impose a complete ban in Sea Isle on the plastic carryout bags now common at food stores and other retail shops. Up to this point, Council has not moved to ban plastic bags.
“We kind of backed off and waited for the state to do something,” Feeley said of the Legislature adopting a ban on plastic bags.
Feeley predicted that the Legislature will eventually approve a ban on single-use plastic bags and other types of plastic.
“It’s going to happen. I think it’s going to happen statewide. When it does, it will be good if everyone gets on board,” he said.
In the meantime, Feeley believes Mertz’s comments will be a catalyst for even more discussion in Sea Isle about eco-friendly programs to reduce litter.
One area that has prompted Feeley’s concerns about litter is Sea Isle Boulevard, the main entryway into town. A multiyear reconstruction project that elevated the boulevard above flood levels also included metal fencing underneath the guardrails to prevent diamondback terrapins from crawling onto the roadway and getting hit by traffic. Feeley said the turtle fencing also acts as a litter trap.
Twice a year, Sea Isle holds communitywide beach cleanups to remove trash and debris from the shoreline and dunes. A newly released report compiled by the city’s Environmental Commission notes that the most common sources of litter on the beaches are cigarette butts and plastic trash, such as bottles, straws, lids and caps.
Mertz said he often finds discarded cigarette butts on the Promenade, the city’s tourist-friendly oceanfront walkway. He would like Sea Isle to impose a smoking ban on the Promenade. Smoking is already banned on the beaches under a state law that took effect in 2019.
“There’s cigarette butts all over,” Mertz said. “You can see that people just sit on the benches and smoke two or three or four or five cigarettes and just drop them right on the ground and leave them there. I’m not sure where they think they go. They don’t just disappear.”
Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer said it would be a mistake to blame beachgoers entirely for the cigarette butts. She noted that many times, discarded cigarette butts are swept off the streets into the storm drains and end up on the beaches.
Custer also said that not all of the litter is intentional.
“We always know there’s going to be accidental litter,” she said.