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Lego’s Search for Sustainable Bricks

APICS CEO

Friday September 14, 2018


As the amount of global plastic waste continues to grow, consumer brands are working to offset their waste and pollution. Unilever, for example, plans to make all of its plastic packaging recyclable or compostable by 2025, and both McDonald’s and Starbucks are cutting their use of plastic straws. Danish toymaker Lego also is working to participate in this sustainability trend, but its challenges are much larger than those of other brands, The New York Times reports. It’s not just the company’s packaging that needs to change, but the material in its iconic toy blocks.

The 19 billion Lego elements — the company’s term for its bricks, trees, doll parts and other pieces — produced annually are mostly made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). ABS is tough, slightly elastic, has a polished surface, and is created from petroleum. Adding to that, Lego’s production operations emit approximately 1 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, about three-quarters of which comes from the raw materials it uses.

To reduce its carbon footprint, Lego aims to keep all of its packaging out of landfills by 2025 and to eliminate its dependence on petroleum-based plastics by 2030. For the first, the company will stop using plastic bags inside its recyclable cardboard packaging. The second goal, however, is proving to be the challenge.

The company is investing 1 billion kroner ($121.5 million) and hiring 100 people to search for sustainable materials, such as plant fibers or recycled bottles, that would be suitable for Lego production. Although options are expanding, the perfect material for Lego will make bricks that retain the shape and bright color of the brand’s pieces, click together easily, and withstand being washed with a load of laundry or stepped on by an unsuspecting parent, Stanley Reed writes. “In essence, the company wants to switch the ingredients, but keep the product exactly the same.”

So far, the company has tested about 200 alternative materials. It has had some success with polyethylene made from sugar-cane husks, which it already uses to make flexible pieces like dragon wings, palm trees and fishing rods. Unfortunately, this material is too soft for 98 percent of the company’s elements. The other materials tested so far have created elements that break into sharp pieces, are misshapen or pockmarked, or have muddy colors.

Therefore, the search for a sustainable alternative continues. Tim Brooks, Lego’s vice president for environmental responsibility, expects that the hunt for a suitable material and the product redesign process could take years. However, company leaders believe it is well worth the effort. “It is important that we can make a toy that doesn’t jeopardize children’s future,” Brooks said.

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