That’s a question Lego are asking themselves, with the announcement last week that they are putting aside $150 million to find out. It will fund the development of the Lego Sustainable Materials Centre, where an estimated 100 employees will work on alternatives to the plastics used to make Lego pieces, as well as new packaging options.
Last year the company made a record 60 billion bricks, as it expands fast into Asian markets. It grew its production space by 50% in 2014 and is due to open a new factory in China in 2017, so that it likely to increase again. It’s already the world’s most powerful toy company, and one of the most recognised global brands. It holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s biggest tyre manufacturer, and rattles off some 1,900 bricks a second, 365 days a year.
That’s a lot of plastic – 77,000 tonnes to be precise, according to the 2014 sustainability report. And like all plastics, Lego’s acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is oil-based and non-biodegradeable, as Cornish beach-combers can tell you. Poisonous fumes are created during heating and moulding. Lego itself is safe, but not all the chemistry involved in making the plastic is benign.
Finding an alternative won’t be easy. ABS works great, and a durable, endlessly creative toy is one of the best uses for plastic. All the pieces are compatible with existing sets, so it can be passed on. And Lego doesn’t really wear out. Philippe Cantin built a robot to test how many times you could stick two Lego bricks together before they lost their grip. The bricks wore out just after 37,000.
Inspired by ‘cradle to cradle’ principles, Lego have attempted to look into what happens to Lego bricks when people are done with them, but then they had a look on Ebay and weren’t sure what to do next. Children are “combining bricks from their parents’ or grandparents’ time with new ones” they noted.
So Lego works pretty well as it is, and the company isn’t entirely sure what they’re looking for. “There is no common definition of a sustainable material” says CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. “Several factors influence the environmental sustainability of a material – the composition of the material, how it is sourced and what happens when the product reaches the end of its life. When we search for new materials all of these factors must be considered.”
Lego hopes to have found what it’s looking for by 2030, and that’s one of a number of sustainability goals. They are currently building a 78 turbine wind farm off the German coast. They will produce more renewable energy than they use by the end of next year, part of plans to be carbon positive by 2020. 100% FSC print and paper use is another goal, finishing the job from the 97% achieved currently. Zero waste by 2020 is on track at 91%, with 95% expected in 2016. Since 75% of the carbon emissions of Lego’s final product lies with suppliers, they are members of WWF’s Climate Savers programme to facilitate cooperation on carbon cutting right through the supply chain.
It’s fair to say Lego have needed some prompting on some of this. A Greenpeace campaign in 2011 highlighted their use of paper from Indonesia, prompting a switch to FSC board. Another campaign last year drew attention to their long-running partnership with Shell, with Lego announcing that it would not renew the deal when it expires. Still, the company sets itself high standards, and I hope they can maintain them as they continue to grow.