Dr. Ehsan Behzadfar on the intersection of engineering and creativity to produce planet-friendly packaging
Including details of The Creative School’s newly launched Sustainable Packaging Research Lab
Dr. Ehsan Behzadfar joined The Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) as a Graphic Communications Management Assistant Professor in 2020 and is a member of TMU’s graduate studies with an appointment in the Chemical Engineering and Environmental Applied Science and Management programs. Amidst an undeniable environmental pollution crisis, Dr. Behzadfar’s training as a polymer engineer and concentration in sustainable packaging has positioned his research as both innovative and urgent. Since joining The Creative School in 2020, he’s collaborated with leaders in various disciplines, including design, graphic communications and social sciences—expanding the reach of his projects beyond the walls of engineering.
The Creative School houses 26 of Toronto Metropolitan University’s media, communication and design-related programs including journalism, performance, interior design, media production, and film, among others. Renowned for its distinctive and vibrant culture of scholarly research and creative activities, its research centres and innovation spaces make up a dynamic ecosystem in which faculty and students work closely with community and industry partners to engage in path-breaking initiatives dedicated to real-world transformation.
In conversation with Toronto Life, Dr. Behzadfar discusses how The Creative School is championing a multidisciplinary research community, innovating STEM and investing in sustainability.
At what point in your career did the concentration on packaging grab your attention?
Before I joined Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), I was a faculty member in chemical engineering at Lakehead University. By training, I am a polymer engineer. When I moved to The Creative School at TMU, I continued working on packaging materials in greater depth to address the challenges around sustainable packaging.
How has The Creative School been a space for you to foster this work?
The Creative School is an interesting place in that it focuses on a multidisciplinary approach to education. I have many colleagues from different disciplines who I work with to comprehend solutions to the challenges we face in the packaging sector. For example, for a recent research project addressing sustainable packaging design, we have formed a collaborative team with Dr. Jay Park, an expert in packaging distribution; Dr. Layal Shuman, whose work focuses on social justice-driven, participatory design; and Associate Professor Natalia Lumby, an expert in sustainable business models. This not only makes the work more interesting but allows us to develop more inclusive and less vulnerable solutions.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing a shift toward fully sustainable packaging?
There is a lack of inclusivity in the solutions that are being produced. To me, the main problem is that the individuals that are addressing this challenge of sustainable packaging don’t communicate with one another. We cannot only address materials and not customer behaviour, for example. A true solution calls for close collaboration between all stakeholders in this field, including designers, manufacturers and even the government—we must equally participate in developing and embracing a solution.
What are your thoughts on greenwashing and is this a challenge that you face in your work?
To me, greenwashing means that someone is intentionally leveraging the cause for their benefit without any real action being made. I believe our field more faces situations where there is no wrong intention. The industry is generally willing to help the environment, but their comprehension of the problem is not sometimes coming from diverse sources. It goes back to the lack of communication between experts in different fields.
Do you believe the pandemic has influenced our relationship with single-use plastics?
Absolutely. Most government and corporate agencies have rolled back on their policies around single-use plastics because of the pandemic, shortages in the market and of course hygiene. Even more so, there has been a significant increase in the use of e-commerce, which increases the amount of packaging used every day to ship products overseas and across the country.
You recently launched the Sustainable Package Research Lab in partnership with Dr. Jay Park—what is the mission of this new collaboration?
This research lab is in line with our vision for developing a comprehensive solution with an emphasis of intersecting engineering and creativity. We try to be a one-stop shop for the needs of the packaging industry and also government agencies. Working with Dr. Jay Park, the lab addresses the packaging materials as well as how the packages will be distributed. It’s important for us to understand how our packaging solutions will be received by consumers and interact with the supply chain.
What has been the student response to some of the niche courses you’ve introduced to The Creative School, including Sustainability in Print and Packaging?
I would say that the greatest response I’ve received from the students is a sense of shock and surprise to the material I bring into the classroom. Once we begin to really dive into the topics of plastics, paper and sustainability, students often find themselves interacting with ideas and information that is entirely new to them. This is, of course, my greatest hope as a professor. It is my goal to encourage open and new ways of thinking for my students, and for them to move forward in their studies with creativity and curiosity for innovation.
What are some of the other exciting projects you’re currently working on?
Right now, I am working on a project that focuses on multilayer films of polymers made of biodegradable polymers such as starch thermoplastics. With multilayer films, recyclability is often a challenge and results in packages ending up in landfills. The unique thing about our design is that we think about their end-of-life and recycling processes as well. Through a single washing process, the starch layer can be washed away leaving the other layers to be collected for recycling or composting. This is more feasible and cost-effective to maintain recyclability. Our goal here is to design packaging that serves everyone — consumers, manufacturers, government agencies and the environment.
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