Herbs growing in pots with mattress of cut linings

Putting vegetables to bed

Scientists from the University of Sheffield have developed an innovative use for discarded foam mattresses for a refugee camp in Jordan that could become a potential game-changer for food security around the world.

The project, a collaboration between the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures and the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, has developed a method of growing food in the foam of discarded mattresses using hydroponics, a way of farming with water, minerals and nutrients instead of soil.

When scientists, who were already developing hi-tech foam ‘soils’ in their labs in Sheffield, visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan for a different project, they saw a pile of discarded UN aid mattresses destined for landfill and realised they could potentially be used as a growing medium for crops in the desert camp environment.

Poor soil quality and lack of space had previously made farming virtually impossible at Zaatari, which houses more than 75,000 Syrian refugees. The Sheffield team has been working closely with the refugees in the camp – many of whom are experienced farmers – to grow tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and herbs using the hydroponic foam soil method in ‘desert gardens’. 

The project has so far trained nearly 1,000 people to grow food with foam and has the potential to be rolled out to other camps around the world.

This use of the foam in real-world conditions has demonstrated its potential to grow crops more sustainably, and in places with degraded soils. The method uses 70-80% less water than planting straight into the soil and eliminates the need for pesticides.

Professor Duncan Cameron, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food, said: “Our research on synthetic soils meant we could re-imagine the UNHCR’s waste disposal problem – where aid workers saw used mattresses, we saw an alternative growth substrate. 

“This project is about co-creation, not ‘smart ideas’ parachuted in. As scientists, we’ve learned an enormous amount from the refugees about how our research can be applied in the real world.”

Professor Tony Ryan, director of the university’ Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, added: “We are only at the start of what might be possible, in terms of what refugees and their situation has to teach us about all of our potential futures.”

The university has launched a public appeal to make the initiative sustainable and roll it out to other camps.


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