An array of tiny vegetable plants sprouts up in Zaatari, the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp. The produce is fresh, healthy, and grown in mattress foam.
Zaatari was established in 2012 by the United Nations to host refugees fleeing from the Syrian Civil War. The camp, located in Jordan, is considered a temporary home; the refugees are unable to engage in any activities that suggest a permanent stay, such as getting a job or fixing their houses, and as of 2019, the population of the camp exceeds 76,000.
In 2017, Tony Ryan, a professor at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Chemistry, and his team of researchers went to Zaatari to help the refugee crisis. Their goal was to take waste material collected at the camps and repurpose it. Of all the issues faced by refugees, the one that stood out to Ryan and his team was the lack of resources residents had to grow their own food.
Many of the residents of Zaatari came from the Daraa, a region in Syria known for its agriculture and farming. The refugees are not allowed to plant anything on the campgrounds in Zaatari – even if they use pots, the soil is salty, acidic, and has little organic matter content.
Professor Ryan and his team came across a warehouse filled with discarded mattresses. Prior to going to Zaatari, Ryan had looked at research done by PhD student Harry Wright on the use of foams to grow high-value crops. The two ideas came together, and a plan to create a garden from mattress foam was born.
The United Nations Refugee Agency provides the residents at Zaatari with mattresses to sleep on. Once the mattresses have reached the end of their life, they cannot be reused. This leads to piles of mattresses tucked away in storage units.

Warehouses piled high with mattresses. Photo: University of Sheffield.

The team saw hydroponics as the most viable solution for resolving the farming issue. Hydroponics is a gardening method that substitutes soil with another growing medium. The roots of a plant are suspended from the ground and nutrients are absorbed through them.
The foam from the discarded mattresses is cut up and serves as artificial support for the plants. They are then placed into yogurt tubs along with a sprouting seed. Over time, solutions and water are pumped into the foam, and the plants begin to grow.
Over 200 refugees were introduced to the concept of hydroponics and trained in its basic techniques. They applied their previous farming background to the planting process. Before long, they created a production line of cutting foam, mixing nutrient solutions, and planting seedlings. Within a year, a tennis-court sized garden emerged in the middle of Zaatari.
In a blog post about the project in 2017, Wright wrote: “The willingness of the residents to learn and eagerness to put a plan into action was truly astounding, and between the work many smiles, jokes and laughs were had.”
The success of the project and the uniqueness of its location led to the nickname ‘Desert Garden’.
Growing produce is now easier for Zaatari residents. Mattress foam is abundant and accessible in the camp. This helps conserve precious resources like water and fertilizer. The more food they can grow, the less reliant they have to be on external charities.
Back in Sheffield, an abandoned schoolhouse is being used to help researchers further incorporate foams into the hydroponics system, but they don’t have access to large quantities of foam. To compensate, the researchers mix foam with other substances, like clay, to see whether that improves the hydroponics system. The researchers aim to develop a biodegradable foam that chemically, physically, and biologically resembles soil. As of now, the plants in the farm grow two to ten times faster than they do in soil. The garden also uses controlled growing environments and low-cost technology.
Like Zaatari, the Sheffield farm has the capability to provide fruits and vegetables at a community level. The produce could stock supermarket shelves, and further encourage local and sustainable farming.
In addition to being used as a local resource, researchers hope the project can be used as a form of outreach to the local community. Unemployed or low-skilled workers can be trained to grow their own produce. Schools can use the gardens as an educational tool.
Jake Nickles, a Knowledge Exchange Associate, said in the University’s research blog: “It’s about having a positive impact on the Sheffield region and deploying policies that have been put into place for sustainability. It’s the University putting words into actions.”
The work done in both Zaatari and Sheffield proves that hydroponically-created produce can thrive in any part of the world. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, there are 815 million people in the world who suffer from chronic malnourishment. If the project succeeds commercially, it has the potential to help alleviate this hunger crisis.
Featured image: University of Sheffield.


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