Growing crops in old mattresses

25 February 2020

Interview with 

Tony Ryan, University of Sheffield

SEEDLING

A germinating seedling

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The horror of the war in Syria - and the consequences for those affected - have been in the news a great deal recently. More than half of the Syrian population have been displaced and many have ended up in makeshift shelters. But, on a happier note, the University of Sheffield have found a way to make life a bit more bearable in at least one refugee camp. They’re repurposing the foam from used mattresses to make hydroponic grow beds. Chemist Tony Ryan had previously done research using foam to grow plants on roofs, so he was perfectly positioned to spot the opportunity when it came along, as he explained to Katie Haylor...

Tony - Zaatari refugee camp is 12 kilometres from the Syrian border; there are 80,000 refugees in six square kilometres, and most of them were farmers before they had to leave their homes. Once the mattress has been given out, those people either move on, or the mattress gets changed; then the UN are stuck with this mattress that to them is dirty, and there's nothing they can do with it. They didn't know how to dispose of them even. So they showed me a warehouse full of mattresses, and I sent the most excited text message back to Sheffield university to say, "I know what we can do. We can give every refugee family a garden in an old mattress." So our task really was to convince them that they could grow things in foam, because where they were currently living was in the desert and nothing will really grow in the desert. Once we'd done that, they showed each other how to do it and then showed us how to do it even better.

Katie - The process involves filling waste containers with the foam and a nutrient solution. Seedlings are then placed into the foam, which supports the roots of the plants as they grow.

Tony - So for hydroponic horticulture all you need the soil to do is hold the plants up, because actually you provide everything for the plant in the nutrient solution that's delivered. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the three main macronutrients, and depending on the plants that are being grown, the micronutrients are selenium, iron, magnesium...

Katie - What kinds of plants have people been growing? Is this for recreation? Is it for food? Is it both?

Tony - You won't be able to grow your main food calories this way. This is about quality of life. We've grown onions, radishes, cucumbers, lettuces, tomatoes, cauliflowers, squash, chillies, mint, coriander, and lots of other herbs; I got a WhatsApp message the other day with people harvesting strawberries from a collection of yogurt pots in a greenhouse; couple of hundred lettuces...

Katie - For experienced farmers who are used to growing in soil, was it quite hard to convince people to give it a go?

Tony - The key to getting Syrian farmers to change to something new is to get another Syrian farmer to explain it to them and be an advocate. We have a guy called Moaed Al Meselmani who's actually a Syrian refugee, he was a cereal researcher back in Syria. He helped enormously because he knows hydroponics can can speak Arabic. He convinced Abu Wisam, a 50-something Syrian engineer; he showed him and got him going, so he was the green-hand man that kept our hydroponic greenhouse working. You're far more likely to believe it if a Syrian farmer's telling you as opposed to some crazy English professor. And when you ask Maya, the young lady who works on the program, what she enjoys best about it, she says it's the smiles on the old ladies' faces because they can grow things again and they can see the color green. It gives people hope.

Katie - What have you learned from their experience of using this set-up?

Tony - So we have a research program in Sheffield on hydroponic horticulture and we've learned lots of little tricks about how to start plants growing, what the right watering regimes would be in an arid place. Lots of little technological tricks as well, and little inventions. So one guy turned up and he'd been growing herbs in a yoghurt pot that was full of foam, and then he put that yoghurt pot inside a bigger pot and used a repurposed pump from a soap dispenser. So every time he took a piece of mint to make his mint tea he recirculated the nutrient solution.

Katie - Do you think that would be the potential to make this system self-sustaining? I'm just wondering, is it always going to be reliant on the nutrient solution being provided? Or could it be sourced locally?

Tony - It wouldn't be difficult in terms of technology to go out of the refugee camp into commercial production. We'd like to take it into a business so that the refugees, as they move out into the community, if they don't get to go home, can actually generate a livelihood from being hydroponic farmers in a very water-deprived country. It would be competitive with growing things in polytunnels because you get better water usage, so you'd need less water in a very water-deprived place; and actually you get more efficient usage of the nutrient fertiliser solutions. The reason we're currently fundraising is to take it to every other UN refugee camp. They always have people with time on their hands. We know that growing things improves people's wellbeing and mental health. They always have dirty mattresses, and they nearly always have farmers. So it's a really positive thing. It turns two potential problems, a waste disposal problem and an idle hands problem, into something that gives people an awful lot of satisfaction.

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