Can Lego find a more sustainable plastic for its bricks?


With the launch of a multimillion-pound research centre, Lego hopes to find a more sustainable material to make its pieces. But can it succeed, asks Lee Williams.

“Only the best is good enough” was the motto of Ole Kirk Kristiansen, the founder of Danish toy firm, Lego. When you look at Lego products it’s easy to see why. Lego bricks are so tough they’re almost impossible to break, so durable they have practically no end-of-life, and so well-made they fit together almost seamlessly.

Now Kristiansen’s grandson and current Lego Group owner, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, is applying his grandfather’s maxim to making the company more sustainable. To this end the group has reduced its packaging, uses only FSC-certified cardboard for its boxes and invested in an off-shore windfarm. But the biggest challenge is yet to come – to find a more sustainable material to make the Lego pieces themselves.

In 2015 Lego’s Sustainable Materials Centre will open with a 1bn Danish Krone (£100 million) investment and 100 new employees to begin the search, a task that even CEO and president, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, called a “daunting and exciting challenge”. The company manufactures around 60 billion pieces of Lego each year, made from the petroleum-based plastic, ABS, which produces the well-made, tough, durable bricks we know and love. One of the challenges that makes the task so daunting is, oddly enough, that ABS is already pretty sustainable.

Lego bricks are so long-lived hardly anyone throws them away, instead they are passed on from generation to generation. Such longevity is more sustainable even than recycling. Not that ABS can’t be recycled as well – Lego recycled 70 million of its own bricks in 2014 alone. So where can they improve to get the best demanded by their founder? Well, although Lego can recycle its own products, it can’t use recycled plastics from outside due to the risk of contamination. This means that the vast majority of its bricks must come from newly-sourced raw materials. And here’s the rub, ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) is a plastic derived from three petroleum-based polymers, which means that three-quarters of Lego’s carbon footprint comes from the extraction and refinement of oil.

So Lego wants its new sustainable material to be non-fossil fuel based, to have all the technical features of its predecessor, to be recyclable and have a lower overall carbon footprint. And it wants this in all its products by 2030. No wonder Knudstorp called it “daunting”. And independent experts agree. “They’re going to have a hard time finding a durable material with the same technical properties,” says Francisco Morcillo of the British Plastics Federation.

The most likely candidates for such a material are so-called ‘bioplastics’ made from organic materials such as starch and vegetable oils sourced from plants like potatoes, maize and oil-seed rape.

The problem is whether these substitutes can provide all the technical properties demanded to give Lego bricks their ‘only the best is good enough’ quality. One bioplastic made from corn, which has already been tested, looked promising on all the criteria except for durability – it began losing its shape just a few weeks after moulding. This highlights a problem with most bioplastics – they are biodegradable, which is usually a good thing, except when you’re looking for durability. “Biodegradable material is going to degrade at the end of the day,” as Morcillo concisely puts it.

Another problem with bioplastics is cost and resource efficiency. “At the moment the energy to produce that kind of plastic is more than the energy used to produce ABS or conventional plastics,” says Morcillo. “And it’s about getting the feedstock. At the moment getting oil out of the ground is really cheap. Feedstock for bioplastic is a bit more difficult mainly because it’s not as broadly used. We’re talking about natural products like crops so they’re competing withotherindustrieslikethefoodindustry.”

That’s not to say there aren’t promising avenues opening up. In June Coca Cola unveiled the world’s first fully-recyclable plastic bottle made entirely from plant materials. Although this form of plastic is still much more expensive than conventional kinds, Coca Cola clearly has an eye on the future. “Obviously they’re spending a lot of money with the hope that in the future, if it’s widely used – if the technology gets to that point – it’s going to be cheaper,” says Morcillo.

The big question now is, can Lego do the same? Morcillo thinks so, but with some compromises. “The solution will probably be to combine conventional and bio-based,” he says. But compromises might not be good enough for a company with an only-the-best-is-good-enough attitude. Whether Lego will succeed on its own terms will depend on time, money, resources and desire. It has 15 years and a large investment of money, resources and people behind it. And it has the motto of its founder to drive it forwards. Many will hope that Lego can succeed and that ‘only the best is good enough’ is a phrase whose time has come, this time for the environment.


Photo Credit: Jui His Chang on Flickr.