LEGO is facing a roadblock in its pursuit to ditch oil-based plastics from its bricks.
LEGO’s commitment to using sustainable materials
LEGO is committed to making all of its bricks from sustainable materials by 2032. The company has been exploring a variety of options to achieve this goal, including the use of plant-based plastics, recycled materials, and new sustainable materials.
But on September 24, 2023, the Financial Times reported that the Danish toy company had abandoned its most high-profile effort to ditch oil-based plastics from its bricks after finding that its new material would have led to higher carbon emissions over the product’s lifetime as it would have required new equipment.
In 2021, LEGO revealed that it had tested a prototype brick made of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET). But according to a new report by Financial Times, LEGO found that this new material would have led to higher carbon emissions than the oil-based ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic that it currently uses for about 80 percent of the billions of pieces it makes each year.
“In the early days, the belief was that it was easier to find this magic material or this new material” that could replace the oil-based ABS plastic,” LEGO CEO Niels Christiansen told the Financial Times. “[But] that doesn’t seem to be there. We tested hundreds and hundreds of materials. It’s just not been possible to find a material like that.”
ABS vs RPET
In addition to being environmentally friendly, the ideal alternative should give the same color, shine, and sound as oil-based ABS plastic bricks. The Financial Times report also noted that efforts in replacing ABS in LEGO bricks have proved harder than expected as it is the material responsible for the durability of bricks and their “clutch power”.
According to Tim Brooks, head of sustainability at LEGO, the toy company’s own RPET was softer than ABS. So, in order to achieve similar safety and durability to the existing plastic bricks, RPET needed extra ingredients as well as large amounts of energy to process and dry it.
“It’s like trying to make a bike out of wood rather than steel,” Brooks told the Financial Times of the process to make LEGO’s RPET similar to ABS. “In order to scale production [of RPET], the level of disruption to the manufacturing environment was such that we needed to change everything in our factories. After all that, the carbon footprint would have been higher. It was disappointing.”
What’s next for LEGO’s sustainability efforts?
Despite LEGO’s decision to discontinue its project on RPET, a spokesperson for the company told Reuters that LEGO remains committed to making its bricks sustainable by 2032. But instead of finding and developing a new material to replace ABS, the toymaker decided to focus on improving the carbon footprint of ABS over time by incorporating more bio-based and recycled material. Financial Times pointed out that LEGO currently needs about 2kg of petroleum to make 1kg of ABS plastic.
“It’s not going from being 0 to 100 percent sustainable from one day to the next,” Christiansen told Financial Times. “But you start with elements of it being based on either biomaterials or recycled materials. Maybe it’s 50 percent, or 30 percent, or 70 percent based on that.”
Although this shift in focus would make things harder to communicate with consumers, Christiansen stressed that the new focus was the right one and would help it meet its targets for 2032 of a 37 percent reduction in emissions.
LEGO also plans to triple its spending on sustainability to ($430mn) a year by 2025, even though that increase could hurt its profit margins as the company doesn’t want to pass on the higher cost of buying sustainable materials to its consumers.
Lastly, LEGO is also pushing its initiative to reuse discarded LEGO bricks or recycle them into new ones. The toymaker’s Replay program, in which people donate their bricks, which are then sorted and cleaned before going to charities, is ongoing in the United States and Canada. The program is also set to launch in Europe in 2024.