Danielle Richardet loves the beach. She hates trash.
Back in August, the Wilmington mother of three started a little experiment to see how many cigarette butts she could pick up on Wrightsville Beach in 20 minutes. That scorching day, she and her kids ended their 20-minute cleanup with 346 butts in their sand pails.
On Monday of this week, the count was 545 butts. It was the 22nd cleanup, and the cumulative butt total had reached a staggering 9,798.
The effort has taken on a life of its own.
Dubbed "Our Daily Ocean: A Story of Butts," the project won an Internet contest sponsored by the makers of Brita water filters. It will be the subject of a short film that will make its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January and air on the Sundance Channel.
Richardet is excited, but mostly she hopes the film will inspire others to start their own environmental revolutions.
"I have this belief that everything is connected," she said. "What I do affects the person next to me and affects everyone."
Richardet, 32, is a 2001 UNC Wilmington graduate from St. Louis. She and her husband, Aaron, a chiropractor, moved to Wilmington, where they started a family and live an environmentally conscious life.
Why not ban butts?
She got the idea for the 20-minute cleanups from a friend in California. Richardet tagged along with her friend at a Santa Monica beach one day and was struck by something - no cigarette butts. The beaches there have banned smoking, something she hopes Wrightsville Beach leaders will do. She plans to attend a town meeting in December to push for it.
For each cleanup, she picks a different beach access. One day in September, the tally at a popular access point was particularly stunning: 1,833.
"There were SO many butts that had we not had a time limit ... there would have been no end in sight. ... it makes me sad," she wrote in her blog, where she chronicles each day's cleanup and posts photos of the debris. "BUT ... even though I'm sad ... I'm happy because I'm doing something about it. ... I don't feel helpless about this issue."
The cleanups have become a family affair for the Richardets and their children: Chase, 8, Claire, 6, and Henri, 4. "It makes them realize they can make a difference," she said. "I think that's important."
People usually assume the kids are collecting seashells. When they show off what they've picked up, Richardet said, "everyone is usually floored."
Some beachgoers thank them; some join in the pickup.
The reaction is positive, especially when Richardet explains that the butts are not only unsightly but also contain toxins that can harm water and sea creatures.
Next month, California filmmaker Destin Cretton, who won for the best short film at Sundance in 2009, will spend a week shooting footage of Richardet. The busy mom says jokingly that her life is about to become a reality show.
The flurry of attention from the Hollywood types is fun, she said. But maybe the best feedback came from daughter Claire a couple of weeks ago on the beach.
"I think the Earth likes us," she said.
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