Pat Smith decided to take on the challenge of cleaning a local beach every week of the year

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Credit: Pat Smith

Inspiration can strike at any moment — and for Pat Smith from Cornwall, England it arrived on New Year’s Eve 2018.

That’s the day the 70-year-old grandmother decided to take on the remarkable challenge of single-handedly tidying up a local beach every week of the year.

“I started on January 1, 2018,” Smith tells PEOPLE about her 52-week marathon. “I did one beach a week for the whole year, apart from a couple of occasions where I did two.”

As she was sometimes unable to travel from her home near the beautiful market town of St. Austell, Smith didn’t clear 52 different beaches, yet she still managed to collect an astounding 13,000 pieces of litter during her 104-hours of beach-combing — and even kept going while on vacation.

“It was just a case of trying to do them wherever and whenever I could,” adds Smith, who had a range of beaches to tidy along Cornwall’s 400-mile coast. “It’s a case of once your eyes are opened to it, you can’t ever switch off.”

Smith says discarded plastic was by far the most common item in her garbage sack, followed by disused fishing nets and lobster pots.

This matches research by the United Nations, which estimates that up to 80 percent of all litter in our oceans is made of plastic. At the same time, over 8 million tons of plastic leak into the ocean each year – equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the water every minute.

Related: The Mysterious Case of Garfield Phones Washing Up on French Beaches Has Been Solved

“The vast majority is broken up pieces of everyday used items, like bottle tops, toothpaste caps and broken up water bottles,” says Smith. “Once some plastic gets into the sea the waves sort of bashes it up, so what we get on the beach is small bits of the remains.”

“That’s unless we’ve had a violent storm. Sometimes when the storms really rage the waves carry in much bigger stuff.”

During her year-long campaign, the physically-fit grandmother — who walked 305 miles of the Cornish coast in 21 days three years ago — developed a second idea of removing plastic straws from the county and is now actively campaigning to make Cornwall plastic straw-free.

More importantly, she also used her New Year’s resolution as a way of staying close to grandchildren Wilfred, 11, Megan, 9, Sam, 7 and Jasmine, 4, who frequently joined Smith on her 52-week marathon.

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Pat Smith’s grandchildren
| Credit: Pat Smith

“My grandchildren are absolutely fantastic. They’re always calling me over and saying “Gran, some plastic! Gran, some plastic!’,” she says. “I pick up an awful lot of plastic, I can tell you!”

Armed with a bag and glove in her pocket at all times, she says it’s “in my DNA now.”

She adds, “It’s just what I do and hopefully my grandchildren will be doing the same thing.

“I won’t stop, as our beaches need me!”