Environmental issues steadily receive more and more attention at EU policy level. This can for example be seen in the Raw Materials Initiative by DG Enterprise and Resource Efficient Europe by DG Environment which goes back to the theme of a sustainable economy as expressed by the Europe 2020 growth strategy. DG Research and Innovation supports related research activities. The Nanotechnology, Materials & Production (NMP) Theme in the FP7 Cooperation scheme has taken stock of this, by for example including aspects such as substitution, life cycle assessment, improved resource efficiency and better performance materials in the NMP calls for proposals. This is done with the aim to achieve a more green economy and fostering more sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Research on better performing and sustainable materials will more than ever be a pre-condition to meeting such challenges. Progress will come through the development of intelligent materials that embed and transfer knowledge into products and processes or perform certain tasks, when in use or during manufacturing. Already, some 70 per cent of all technical innovations hinge directly or indirectly on the properties of the materials employed. We have passed from the perception "materials are in the drawer" to the perception "materials are the bottleneck". The next step can be "materials are the solution".
At least 60 % of the total proposed Horizon 2020 budget is related to sustainable development, the vast majority of this expenditure contributing to mutually reinforcing climate and environmental objectives. In a resource-scarce Europe, new products must have low material / energy resource needs and high knowledge content. As stated in the Europe 2020 strategy, endorsed by EU leaders: “Europe must promote technologies and production methods that reduce natural resource use, and increase investment in the EU's existing natural assets”.
Materials can have a large environmental impact in many of its stages, from sourcing, extraction, processing, auxiliary materials and processes, use and end of life fate. The choice or design of material solutions can thus have a great impact on the technologies in which they are used. Implying that a material could be an integral part of the solution to a problem created by the use of a specific technology. Such solutions could require entirely new materials either to replace a material or be part of a new technology based on better performing materials and eco-designed products.