Research scientists at the University of Sheffield have teamed up with Syrain refugees to create an innovative way of growing food in very difficult circumstances using recycled mattresses. But the work does not end there; materials recycled from the camp have also been used to develop windmills, air conditioning, mobile phone chargers and even wheelchairs!
Za’atai refugee camp in Jordan is the largest Syrain refugee camp in the world, with more than 80,000 men, women and children living there. It is estimated that 93% of Syrian refugees in Jordan are below the poverty line and are likely desperate to find an alternative way of feeding themselves and their families. It was these shocking statistics that inspired The University of Sheffield and The UN Refugee Agency to begin their life changing work.
This project is based on hydroponics which is the act of growing plants in materials other than soil, with alternatives including gravel, sand, or water with added nutrients. Previously, old mattresses had been stacking up in the camp with no sustainable way of disposing of them and all the plastic they contain. However, scientists at The University, led by Professor Tony Ryan, have found a way to use them to the refugee community’s advantage. The foam the mattresses contain can be removed and placed in old coffee cups or yoghurt pots. The foam forms a structure for plants to grow on and all the nutrients the plants need can be provided as part of a water-based nutrient mixture. Not only does this prevent the refugees from breaking Jordian law, which does not allow them to plant directly on the Earth, it also reduces the amount of water the plants need to thrive. The latter is true because the foam from mattresses holds the water-based solution near the roots of the plant, as opposed to it draining away like it would if the plants were grown in soil. This means plants grown in mattress foam need just 20% of the water plants grown in soil require.
As of February this year, it was estimated that more than 1,000 people had learnt this plant-growing technique, with the help of Syrian farmer Abu Wesam, but there is still work to be done. By observing plant growth in unfavourable conditions like those in the camp, researchers can determine the optimum amount of water, nutrients and energy that should be used to produce the greatest amount of plant material. This is not an easy process, but it will allow those in need to grow the most food at the lowest cost in terms of water, nutrients and energy.
Professor Tony Ryan stresses that the project has always been very much a team effort, with the University learning much from the resourcefulness the refugees display on a daily basis. The work is testament to the spirit of the refugees that live in Za’atai Camp. This project is particularly important in the current climate because urban areas are becoming more and more densely populated across much of the world, and so learning to live with limited space and resources may soon become a task for us all. Learning to live more sustainably is already high on the agenda for a lot of people, but it seems the mattress issue has not yet been solved with the UK throwing away more than 7 million mattresses in 2017, all of which went into landfill. This statistic highlights how much we can learn from stories such as this one, which go to show what can be achieved with few recycled resources and a whole lot of ingenuity.
BBC: How Mattresses could Solve Hunger https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/science-environment-51466978/how-mattresses-could-solve-hunger
Bright Vibes: How Mattresses could Help Solve World Hunger: https://brightvibes.com/1626/en/how-old-mattresses-could-help-solve-world-hunger
The Matress Landfill Crisis: How the Race to Bring us Better Beds led to a Recycling Nightmare: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/12/mattress-landfill-crisis-recycling-nightmare#:~:text=The%20UK%20threw%20away%20more,times%20taller%20than%20Ben%20Nevis.