Overcoming the Nurdles – interview with Suparna Mathur, NYUAD Director of Community Outreach

“If we can change the perspectives of residents, however little, we know these changes plant the seeds for a stronger collective of environmentally conscious residents. ” says Suparna Mathur, Director of Community Outreach at NYUAD and organiser of The Great Nurdles Hunt Initiative, an advocacy initiative promoting marine conservation through community volunteering in the UAE. The Sustainabilist caught up with her to find out more about the initiative.

1. Tell us about the “The Great Nurdles Hunt Initiative”. What inspired NYUAD to support such an initiative? How does Community Outreach at NYUAD promote environmentally conscious behaviour within the community?

As part of the University’s larger commitment to stewarding sustainability, our Community Outreach environmental education programmes seek to catalyze more conscious behavior through active engagement of UAE community members. We have found that what individuals and communities consider most impactful from our programmes is the opportunity to be a part of the solution. The “Great Nurdle Hunts” provide exactly that: an opportunity for all participants, regardless of age or experience, to become citizen scientists.

The Nurdle Hunts were inspired by our philosophy of “glocal” action (localized engagement towards global issues) through transformative volunteer experiences for positive change. The community events were designed in partnership with marine conservationist Arabella Willing and our Saadiyat socially responsible partner organizations, Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi and Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort.

Common feedback that we receive from Nurdle Hunt participants is “now I cannot unsee them.” If we can change the perspectives of residents, however little, we know these changes plant the seeds for a stronger collective of environmentally conscious residents. We are often inspired by the changes community members choose to implement afterwards, including numerous families that have decided to significantly reduce their plastic and single-use consumption. These discussions are often driven by youth who instinctively understand the role they can play in healing the environment, which is why they remain our source of hope and inspiration. These discussions in homes lead to advocates in organizations that push institutional change which in turn, creates the groundswell we need.


New York University Abu Dhabi’s Service Kashtah: Nurdle Hunt at Park Hyatt Beach, Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on February 16, 2019. Christopher Pike, www.cpike.com

2. As microplastic marine pollution has become a serious threat to marine life, what role do nurdles play in impacting marine wildlife and the ecosystem?

Given their size, nurdles are easily mistaken for food which makes them a direct and constant threat to our marine life. The longer they are in the ocean, the higher the likelihood of their toxicity and harmful impact. At a more macro level, nurdles represent two key issues:
1) Our global demand for plastic consumption. As pre-production plastic pellets, nurdles are only one part of the devastating scale of the marine pollution problem. Despite collecting tens of thousands of nurdles at each community event, we cannot possibly outpace the removal of these pesky pollutants. What we need is both individual and collective changes in eliminating our dependency on single-use plastic consumption.
2) Our interconnectedness: the oceans connect our planet and people, transcending boundaries and even policies or politics. We are seeing a groundswell of movements around the world that are working to break down barriers to rebuild our ecosystems in more resilient ways.

3. Through the partnership with Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots UAE programme, how is NYUAD tackling environmental, conservational, and humanitarian issues in the UAE?

We believe that sustainability and climate change are complex challenges that require a collaborative response, which is why we build strategic partnerships with local and global organizations to bolster environmental efforts. Our partnership with the Jane Goodall Roots & Shoots UAE program has been mutually beneficial and rooted in our core commitments to the environment and education. The Roots & Shoots program in the UAE has grown exponentially, helping build and sustain a growing network of hundreds of youth and education leaders from over 100 schools who are committed to empowering environmental action and knowledge. It has been a privilege to be a part of the growth of the UAE programme, allowing us to both catalyze greater sustainable impact with our own campus community as well as be catalysts for increased environmental stewardship across the Emirates.

4. What advice would you give The Sustainabilist readers in the light of these initiatives?

Through this pandemic, we are learning that swift widespread change is possible, which provides hope for urgently needed climate action. Many of us have found ourselves drawn to nature during this time. I hope that this time in shelter helps us reflect on how our own wellbeing is so intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of our planet. This year’s World Environment Day theme was “Time For Nature” and it has never been a more opportune time for us to reimagine a more sustainable future.

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