The University of Sheffield’s Desert Garden project has won the Research with Impact (Institution) award at the 2020 Green Gown Awards ceremony. 

The Green Gown Awards is the leading sustainability recognition programme in the Higher and Further Education sectors. Supported by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), the 2020 Green Gown Awards recognised winners across 12 different categories including students, individual projects and institutional commitment. 

Desert Garden

When visiting Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, a home for over 80,000 displaced Syrian refugees, Professor Tony Ryan discovered a pile of old mattresses due for disposal. Working with Professor Duncan Cameron,  an expert in hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and soil health, they set out to see if the foam from these mattresses could mimic the high-tech foams they were using in their labs as a synthetic soil to grow food.

Soon after, the innovative Desert Garden project was born. This project was recognised by the Green Gown Awards as a unique example of the social and environmental good that can be derived from research with a humanitarian focus. The team co-produced the project with the refugees themselves, many of which are experienced farmers and successfully grew a range of produce including tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and herbs.

The Desert Garden project has shown that by applying circular economy principles, waste can be dramatically reduced from refugee camps whilst refugees themselves can learn, or adapt, skills to grow food in some of the most arid environments across the world. 

By filling waste containers with mattress foam, adding a carefully balanced nutrient solution, and planting seedlings directly into the foam, a range of produce can be grown. The hydroponics method uses 70-80 per cent less water than planting straight into the soil and eliminates the need for pesticides. 

Crucially, the project created a deep and lasting social connection between the refugees and Sheffield. The project is now managed by Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, a Syrian refugee himself and soil scientist at the University of Sheffield.  

The project was supported by the University of Sheffield’s Campaigns and Alumni Relations (CAR) team. Due the generosity of donors, over £240,000 has been raised to help secure the future of this project. If you would like to donate please find out more here.  

The judges commented that Desert Garden is “a truly impressive and commendable project funded by public contributions providing an innovative and imaginative circular economy approach. Exemplary case of utilising existing skills resources, resulting in health, social and environmental benefits.” 

Professor Tony Ryan, Professor of Physical Chemistry and Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, said: 

“We are delighted to win this award. Thank you to all of the donors who have made this project possible and to the Green Gown Awards for recognising the hard work of a number of colleagues in making this project the success it is.

“By applying creative thinking, the Desert Garden project shows the potential that research has to solve contemporary sustainability challenges. We have created deep and lasting links between the refugees in Zaatari and Sheffield.”   

Sustainable research

The University’s sustainability strategy, launched in November 2020, brings together work from across the whole institution, including research. It notes that: “Our research is breaking down barriers between disciplines to develop solutions to real world problems which affect every aspect of our lives.” 

Desert Garden is an example of Sheffield research making a lasting real-world impact and contributing directly to the fulfilment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. By bringing together the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, the Institute for Sustainable Food and colleagues from across disciplines, Desert Garden demonstrates the power of an interdisciplinary approach in solving modern sustainability challenges. 

Through its sustainability strategy, the University of Sheffield intends to embed sustainability across its research and education activities as well as its campus and interaction with the local and regional institutions. By taking this holistic approach, Sheffield aims to become one of the most sustainable research-intensive universities in the country.