Campus Ecosystems: KPU design instructor begins research on biodegradable materials

Stephanie Phillips will incorporate her research into classes over the next five years

Stephanie Phillips, KPU textile design instructor was appointed as the second of two created Sherman Jen Research Chair positions. (Submitted)

Stephanie Phillips, KPU textile design instructor was appointed as the second of two created Sherman Jen Research Chair positions. (Submitted)

Kwantlen Polytechnic University textile design instructor Stephanie Phillips was recently appointed as the second of two created Sherman Jen Research Chair positions. 

As chair of the Next-Generation Design, she will focus on biodegradable materials and explore how enhanced natural materials that remain recyclable can be used in the apparel industry, according to the KPU press release

Phillips says this has been a research interest of hers for a long time, and this position provided an opportunity to expand it from individual projects to working with students in classes as a larger research practice situated at the Wilson School of Design over the next five years. 

Starting this fall semester, students will have the opportunity to engage with the research in a couple different ways. 

“[One way] is we’ll engage with an external company who has a specific problem, and we will research and attempt to solve that problem in a myriad of ways exploring the depth of the topic and coming up with a product or material based output,” Phillips says, adding that this way students get the expertise of the industry. 

Another way students can work with the research is through faculty-led extracurricular product projects. 

“I will have the opportunity to have research assistants work on the projects with me…. This is where students come with an idea of their own, and they can either do it through a course-based topic or a self-directed study course or do it in their own time,” Phillips says, who will supervise projects and offer guidance as needed. 

Last year the research department received two research grants under the student research innovation grants, which allow for payment to students to do their extracurricular research, Phillips says. 

“So [students] get paid … they can get some funding through the research office to do their own project,” she says. “I’m hoping to find some students who want to do some projects, possibly as a part-time job, where I supervise their research.” 

Phillips says it’s important to look at all possible ways to create sustainable materials. 

“Anytime you make something, it [can’t] just be thrown into the landfill. It needs to be able to be recycled, reprocessed, reused, or be compostable.” 

“If I want to be able to compost it, I need it to be made of 100 per cent compostable materials. If I want to recycle, it needs to be 100 per cent pure singular polymer, whether that’s acrylic or polyester,” she says. 

These are two different waste streams, and Phillips says that might change as technology changes. 

“We make a lot of fabrics that have a lot of different fibres in them that aren’t able to be processed the same way,” she says. 

Phillips says that it’s not necessarily the materials that are a problem, but the consumption of them and it’s getting worse. 

According to the City of Vancouver’s website, residents throw out an average of 8 kg of clothing per person each year, equivalent to about 44 t-shirts. The city also estimates consumers buy three times more clothes today than in the 1980s. 

She hopes students will get engaged with sustainability and materials through her research projects. 

“I hope this will give them a leg up and get future designers working in a way that is more sustainable so that we start the sustainability right at the beginning of every single design process,” Phillips says.