Smart materials and safe and sustainable-by-design - a feasibility and policy analysis

Steffen Foss Hansen, Freja Paulsen, Xenia Trier*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Written in the context of EPFL International Risk Governance Center’s (IRGC) project on ensuring the environmental sustainability of emerging technology outcomes, this paper considers how so-called “smart materials” are – or could be – assessed and managed to ensure that their applications do not threaten environmental sustainability. In the IRGC project to which this paper contributes, the concept of sustainability is broadly defined as the expectation that both current and future generations can meet their needs (IRGC, 2022). In this context, risks to environmental sustainability essentially cover the risk of damage to the environment that may manifest only in the long term as a result of (a) unknown effects at the time of deployment (examples in some advanced materials), and/or (b) the accumulation process, after a given material has accumulated and crossed some thresholds (examples with common pesticides) and/or (c) a long time gap between the introduction and subsequent manifestation of consequences (for example, with gene-editing techniques).

In the case of many emerging technologies, those whose task it is to anticipate, assess and manage risks do not have the information they need to do so properly. This particularly includes regulators that have a duty to avoid or mitigate risk while also being expected not to stifle innovation.

This paper presents how the EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability aims to address this complex challenge, in particular through the concept of safe and sustainable-by-design (SSbD), and applies it to the case of smart materials.

Smart materials result from technologies that are relatively new, or even emerging. We examine if the currently developed SSbD assessment and reporting criteria are sufficient to address the specific challenges of emerging smart materials, in particular in relation to environmental sustainability.

After introducing the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (section 1), the paper describes the concept of and current approaches to SSbD (section 2), and then discusses specific features of smart materials (section 3). In conclusion, it reviews some of the challenges that smart materials might raise from a regulatory science perspective in relation to sustainability, life cycles and the protection of human health and the environment (section 4).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEnsuring the environmental sustainability of emerging technologies
EditorsMarie-Valentine Florin
Number of pages17
Place of PublicationLausanne
PublisherSwiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL)
Publication date2023
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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