Discarded mattresses could feed millions of refugees, say scientists

Discarded mattresses that currently end up in landfill could be used to grow food for refugees in desert environments around the world, according to scientists at the University of Sheffield.

Young girl holding basil plants
  • University of Sheffield experts work with Syrian refugees to grow food in the desert using discarded mattresses

  • Innovation could be rolled out to every refugee camp in the world – helping millions to thrive in barren landscapes

  • University hopes to raise £250,000 with Desert Garden appeal to make the project sustainable

Discarded mattresses that currently end up in landfill could be used to grow food for refugees in desert environments around the world, according to scientists at the University of Sheffield.

The team of experts in hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and soil health have collaborated with a group of Syrian refugees – many of whom are experienced farmers – to grow tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and herbs using waste materials in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Aid workers discard thousands of used foam mattresses in camps around the world – but the scientists, who have been developing foam ‘soils’ in their labs in Sheffield, recognised that they could be used as a growing medium for crops.

They have shown the refugees how to fill waste containers from around the camp with mattress foam and a carefully balanced nutrient solution, and plant seedlings straight into the foam, which supports the plant’s roots as it grows. 

Working closely with the refugees, the team has created ‘desert gardens’ that provide people in the camp with fresh herbs and vegetables, training opportunities and longed-for greenery in a harsh desert landscape. 

University of Sheffield scientists have learned from the refugees in turn, whose use of the foam in real-world conditions has demonstrated its potential to grow crops more sustainably, and in places with degraded soils. This method of growing uses 70-80 per cent less water than planting straight into the soil, and eliminates the need for pesticides.

The project is a collaboration between the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures and the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield.

With funding running out for the project, which has so far trained nearly 1,000 refugees to grow food with foam, the University has launched a public appeal to make the initiative sustainable and roll it out to other camps.

They hope to raise £250,000 to supply seeds, nutrient solution and training for 3,000 refugees. Using a “train the trainers” model, this will enable the project to become self-sustaining – with refugees sharing knowledge and skills with each other and using money made from selling produce to buy more supplies.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which runs Zaatari camp, provides Syrian refugees with enough money to buy staples like bread and chickpeas, but life-enriching fruit and vegetables are often out of reach and traditional fresh mint tea is considered a luxury. The University of Sheffield’s Desert Garden project gives people the tools and skills they need to grow their own fresh produce and gain future employment, as well as boosting mental health and greening the camp.

Professor Tony Ryan, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, said: “The refugees we have worked with have taken our training and made the project their own, growing things we never thought would be possible in the desert environment using recycled materials. 

“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. 

“UNHCR see this as something that can work in nearly every refugee camp to improve mental health and wellbeing. If we can make desert gardens economically and culturally sustainable in Jordan, we can ultimately roll this out around the world and help millions of refugees to thrive.”

Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, Desert Garden Project Manager at the University of Sheffield, said: “I’m a researcher and a Syrian refugee myself – and now I’m helping others like me to learn new skills and feed their families with fresh herbs and vegetables in the desert.

“When you’re forced to flee your home, it’s the simple things you miss – like a cup of fresh mint tea or showing your children how to plant a seed. This project connects people with home and gives them hope for the future.”

Professor Duncan Cameron, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, said: “It’s astonishing what happens to the collective human imagination when it meets and is ignited by urgent reality. 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, and they’ve gained valuable skills for the future.”

Abu Wessam, a Syrian refugee living in Zaatari camp, said: “We came here as refugees because of the destruction and killing in Syria. We came to Zaatari camp and the conditions were very bad when we arrived. The situation was miserable. We used to live in houses, now we live here in tents – six or seven people in one tent. 

“This type of agriculture taught us a lot. It’s free from pesticides and growth regulators and it uses 70-80 per cent less water. It would be good if all people in the camp learned this, because the soil isn’t suitable for growing. Now we have only done a pilot project, but we’d like to make it more productive and bigger.”

The Institute for Sustainable Food and Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures are research partners at the University of Sheffield, working together to tackle environmental challenges and build a fairer future. 

The Institute for Sustainable Food brings together multidisciplinary expertise and world-class research facilities to help achieve food security and protect the natural resources we all depend on.

The Grantham Centre works with experts from academia, business and policy to create a sustainable future through pioneering research and training to help the world meet UN Sustainable Development Goals on everything from clean water to responsible consumption.

Find out more about the Desert Garden appeal and donate.

Contact: Sophie Armour, Media & PR Officer at the University of Sheffield: 07751 400 287 / 0114 222 3687 / sophie.armour@sheffield.ac.uk

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