When the first LEGO bricks were produced in 1949, they sold so poorly that many shipments were returned to the company. Flash forward to the present, and LEGOs are one of the world’s best-selling toys. Worldwide sales topped $5 billion dollars in 2019, with sales figures jumping higher in 2020 during the pandemic.
The iconic plastic brick that we all know and love was born in 1963 when acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) replaced cellulose acetate as its base material. With its properties being non-toxic, heat-resistant, highly durable, and easier to mold, ABS proved to be the perfect polymer for LEGOs. Perfect, that is, except for one thing – ABS is oil-based, meaning that it is imperfect for the environment.
Realizing the need to be more ecologically responsible, the LEGO Group announced in 2015 an ambitious plan to make its products from sustainable sources by 2030. They began by investing $150 million to create a Sustainable Materials Center, a hub for over 100 engineers and scientists to work on finding the best way of using sustainable materials in LEGO items. This approach resembles tactics employed by such think-tanks as CERN, a research center that for decades has fostered collaboration between hundreds of international scientists.
LEGO’s sustainability mission hasn’t been an easy one. While many plant-based plastics exist, there isn’t a specific one containing all of the requisite qualities that LEGO needs. In fact, its researchers have come up with over 200 possible alternatives, but all have come up short. “The difficulty is getting to where the bricks have the same color, the same shine, the same sound,” Tim Brooks, LEGO’s vice president of environmental responsibility, told Reuters in an interview. A corn-derived plastic, for example, wound up being too soft, leading to consequences like LEGO structures sagging and bending over time. Wheat-based plastics, meanwhile, produced bricks with uneven colors and a duller appearance.
LEGO researchers, however, have found some success. 2018 saw the debut of a range of sustainable LEGO pieces made from sugarcane-derived polyethylene. Quite appropriately, this plant-based plastic is being used in “botanical” elements like trees, leaves, and bushes, as well as additional items, such as brushes in street sweepers and car washes, and even dragon wings.
LEGO teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to help make sure that the sugarcane is grown and sourced in ways that meet WWF’s Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance sustainability guidelines along with the Bonsucro Chain of Custody standard international sustainability requirements. For example, the LEGO Group is careful that the sugarcane they utilize doesn’t result in creating any food insecurity issues.
This technological breakthrough represents just one step forward for LEGO. So far, the new, sustainably-sourced polyethylene is being used to make over 80 LEGO elements, which equates to about 2 percent of the 3600 elements that the company has. That may seem like a small number but consider that LEGO sells around 75 billion pieces a year, that 2 percent equates to approximately 1.5 billion sustainably pieces being made.
LEGO traditionally has encouraged people to reuse or hand down their old bricks. In 2019, the company launched a donation program called Replay. The public can now ship (for free) their previously used LEGOs, which then get distributed, with the help of its partner Give Back Box, to organizations such as Teach for America and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston. So far, over 11,500 boxes filled with 300,000 pounds of LEGOS have gone to over more than 42,000 children through this socially and ecologically impactful project. Go to https://www.lego.com/en-us/aboutus/replay to learn more.
To help accelerate its sustainability mission, the LEGO Group announced last year that it is investing an additional $400 million dollars for this mission. The company pledged to become carbon neutral production-wise by 2022 and transition out of single-use plastics in its packaging by 2025. Requests from their core customers – kids – helped to spur this change. LEGO Group CEO Niels B Christiansen stated that “we have received many letters from children about the environment asking us to remove single-use plastic packaging. We have been exploring alternatives for some time and the passion and ideas from children inspired us to begin to make the change.”
Taking place over a four-year period starting this year, LEGO’s packaging makeover involves replacing the plastic bagging inside their boxes with paper bags. Made from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper, these fully recyclable paper bags are designed to stress the importance of recycling to kids (and adults) while maintaining LEGO’s fun play experience. Currently, the paper and cardboard used in LEGO products and the product packaging are recyclable, sustainably sourced, and FSC certified, with nearly 75 percent of the cardboard in LEGO boxes coming from recycled material. Additionally, the company has already implemented the phase-out of plastic bags for paper ones in its retail stores.
However, LEGO’s main stumbling block remains its prime goal: coming up with a suitable sustainable raw material to reimagine their petroleum-based plastic pieces. What made ABS such an extraordinary polymer for LEGOs has also made it so challenging to replace. “We’ve had 50 years to play with ABS and perfect it,” Brooks told Wired. “We’re not at that stage with bio-based materials and recyclable materials. How do you control the shrinkage in the mold? How do you control processing the material?”
What might help LEGO researchers in their search is the rise in sustainability-related scientific research that has occurred in recent years. This scientific focus has borne fruit in the consumer marketplace as seen in products like Vegware’s compostable versions of food containers and cutlery.
LEGO fans, however, need not worry that the new, sustainable pieces will look and perform any differently than the ones that they have been enjoying for years. “You never notice the difference,” Brooks assures LEGO fans. The company further states that the new and old pieces will be so alike that “only a carbon-14 test will demonstrate the difference between plant-based elements and conventional elements.”