Lego abandons oil-free Brick in Sustainability Setback

Lego abandoned its most high-profile attempt to eliminate oil-based plastics in its bricks, after discovering that its new material resulted in higher carbon emissions. This is a sign of complex trade-offs faced by companies in their quest for sustainability.

The world’s biggest toymaker announced that two years ago it had -tested a prototype block made from recycled plastic bottles instead of oil-based ABS. ABS is currently used in around 80 percent of the billions pieces it produces each year.

Niels Christiansen said, however, that the use of recycled polyethylene terephthalate would have resulted in higher carbon emissions throughout the lifetime of the product, as it would require new equipment.

Lego decided instead to try and improve the carbon footprint of ABS over time, as ABS currently requires about 2kg petroleum to produce 1kg of plastic.

Christiansen says that in the beginning, it was believed that finding a magic material, or a new material, that could solve the sustainability problem was easy. “But that doesn’t appear to be the case,” he said. We tested hundreds of different materials. “It’s not possible to find such a material.”

Lego’s new strategy highlights the challenges companies face when it comes to Sustainability, where goals such as eliminating fossil fuels or reducing carbon dioxide emissions may conflict.

Initially, the Danish toymaker had set a goal of eliminating all plastics derived from petroleum in its 20-plus playset materials by 2030. In 2018, it made a rapid start by switching from oil-based polyethylene to a plant-based plastic version. It uses this same plastic in around 20 different pieces, including trees and shrubs.

By 2025, it will also be eliminating the use of single-use plastic bags in its packaging. Many current sets come with paper containers.

It has been difficult to replace ABS, the plastic that makes bricks durable and easy to assemble.

Tim Brooks is Lego’s head for sustainability. He said that RPET, on its own, was softer than ABS and needed additional ingredients to make it as durable and safe as the existing plastic. It also required a lot of energy to dry and process it. He said that it was like making a bicycle out of wood instead of steel.

He said: “To scale up production [of recycled plastic], we had to completely change our manufacturing environment. The carbon footprint would then have been greater. “It was disappointing.”

Lego is now working to make ABS (acrylonitrile, butadiene, styrene) more sustainable. This will be achieved by incorporating bio-based materials and recycling.

“It doesn’t go from 0 to 100% sustainable in one day, but it starts with some elements that are based on recycled or bio-materials.” Christiansen explained that it could be 50, 30 or 70% based on this.

He did admit that initially, it would be difficult to communicate to consumers the degree to which each set’s emissions have been reduced.

Lego’s CEO, however, insisted the new focus is the right one, and will help it achieve its 2032 targets of a 37% reduction in emissions from 2019 and only using sustainable materials.

Christiansen acknowledged that the group’s intention to triplicate its spending for sustainability by 2025 to $3bn could affect its profit margins, as it wouldn’t pass on to consumers the higher costs of purchasing sustainable materials.

Brooks stated that Lego has shifted its focus from focusing solely on sustainable materials, to working towards lower emissions as well as circular materials which can be recycled. “RPET is a good example of how we don’t want to be dogmatic,” he said.

The billions of bricks in the children’s rooms can be recycled or reused to make new ones.

Lego’s Replay program, launched in the US and Canada and coming to Europe in 2019, allows people to donate their bricks. These are then cleaned and sorted before being donated to charity.

Brooks hoped that Lego would find a way to sort and collect bricks better in the next 2 to 3 years, before it launches a commercial product whereby people can earn money by returning their old sets. These sets could then be repackaged and sold as new ones.

“It is better to reuse rather than recycle.” We’re now looking at a business model that is circular — how can we make money by recirculating bricks? “It’s a big shift in ideas and thinking,” he said.