Nadia Sparkes, 13, has spent years picking up rubbish on her way to school. But she was mocked by bullies who nicknamed her "Trash Girl," who told her she should pick up their trash, too.
However Sparkes, a student at Hellesdon High School in Norwich, England, never stopped clearing up litter during her two-mile bike rides to school, accumulating barrel after barrel of recyclable plastic along the way.
Now, she's won a Points of Light award — a recognition of her environmental work that she will collect from British Prime Minister Theresa May this Friday.
Sparkes' story went viral in 2017 after she turned her derisive “Trash Girl” moniker into her badge of honour.
“I’m not going to stop doing the right thing because of them, and if they are going to call me 'Trash Girl,' they can say it with respect,” Sparkes told the Eastern Daily Press. “I’m doing something to protect the world they also live in.”
“I’m doing something to protect the world they also live in. It’s everyone’s job. We are all responsible for keeping this world safe, instead of believing that it’s always someone else’s job"https://t.co/k3LAqlAj97— Greenpeace (@Greenpeace) February 21, 2018
Sparkes’ mother, Paula, encouraged her to own the nickname in order to overcome the bullies.
“I told her she had two choices, she could either stop collecting rubbish, stop drawing their attention, and hopefully they would leave her alone,” Paula Sparkes told the Eastern Daily Press. “Or she could own ‘'Trash Girl.’”
The bullies may have made fun of Sparkes, but plastic is no joke.
Each year, people around the world use about 1 trillion plastic bags, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates. In addition, roughly 8 million metric tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year. That waste often washes up on beaches, accumulates in massive patches of floating rubbish, and gets eaten by marine animals.
They’re often called future leaders, but children like Sparkes continue to demonstrate how they can champion important issues right now — even if that means overcoming bullying and other attempts to discourage or discount them.
For example, Florida high schoolers have galvanized a national movement against gun violence, facing off against lawmakers and a powerful gun lobby. And at age 17, Malala Yousafzai earned a Nobel Peace Prize for her work promoting girls’ education, even after being shot in the head by Taliban extremists a few years earlier.
Sparkes’ work has inspired community members, including several local artists who have taken up her environmental cause.
In 2018, artist Ruddy Muddy, who creates elaborate images out of mud, featured Sparkes in a portrait on the back of his van.
“This young lady deserves recognition for the work she is doing to keep Britain tidy. She beat the bullies by being interviewed on TV,” one of Ruddy Muddy’s fans commented on Facebook. “She kept going while being called names. She now wears the name 'Trash Girl' with pride and so she should.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this post was published on Jan. 25, 2018.