One of the earliest annual events to be canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic last year in New Jersey was Clean Ocean Action's spring Beach Sweeps, which organizers said was nixed for maybe only the second time in 35 years.

So when the fall Beach Sweeps returned last October, volunteers uncovered more than their usual share of unusual items, including something that would be very much in the news throughout the rest of the fall and into early winter.

"A 'Trump 2020' flag, so certainly signs of the times here in our Roster of the Ridiculous, and there's many, many more included in the report," Alison Jones, COA Watershed Program coordinator, said.

Among the other findings that made the "Roster of the Ridiculous" were a kitty litter scoop, cocktail shaker, AirPods, a foam Halloween tombstone, and a New Year's Eve party hat.

But those one-off novelties took a back seat to what COA said was the biggest change in its semi-annual tally: 1,113 items classified as personal protective equipment used against COVID-19, including 680 face masks.

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Jones said that increase caused a change to the data card that volunteers fill out, a change that still feels strange.

"We kind of put it in its own special section on the front, where you would typically list 'unusual items,' because at that point, of course, all this stuff was an unusual item, and it still is," she said.

Still, the PPE was just a small sliver of the 185,000 pieces picked up by some 3,700 volunteers last fall, 79% of which COA reports were primarily plastic or foam construction, with more distinct plastic items than ever gracing the data card.

Since 1985, COA reports more than 7.4 million pieces of debris have been removed from Jersey beaches.

The top three items on the group's "Dirty Dozen" have not changed since 2015: plastic pieces, plastic caps and lids, and food and candy wrappers.

But paper pieces also snuck their way onto that list for 2020, and metal beverage cans returned for the first time since 2008. E-cigarette waste, dog waste bags, dental floss, and disposable wipes were other notable "ocean offenders."

Kari Martin, COA advocacy campaign manager, said a fourth "R" should be added to the old "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra, and that is to refuse a single-use item.

New Jersey's ban on single-use plastic and paper bags doesn't kick in for more than a year still, but Martin said other legislation such as a balloon release bill has gotten stalled.

"Over the years, Clean Ocean Action's data has been used for laws in that time, and we look forward to the future, when we can continue to bolster and strengthen our laws to reduce plastic waste," she said.

Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, is the primary sponsor of an additional bill that would further restrict, among other things, the types of carryout containers that can be used within the state.

Smith said Gov. Phil Murphy supports such measures, but this particular one hasn't had any movement since December.

"I look forward to the day when there aren't any more beach sweeps because there's no need to have a beach sweep, that we human beings are treating our resources responsibly," Smith said.

Spring Beach Sweeps are returning to 67 locations up and down the Jersey Shore on Saturday, April 17, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and volunteers can scan a QR code at each site to urge their legislators to support the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.

Anyone who wants to participate must pre-register, and can do so at cleanoceanaction.org. And don't forget to BYOB — bring your own bucket, for collecting.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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