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The world’s biggest toy maker has hit a big brick wall in its efforts to use plant-based plastic

Saabira Chaudhuri, June 13, 2019 6:30PM The Wall Street Journal

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Lego minifigures, one of the popular products sold by the world’s biggest toymaker. media_cameraLego minifigures, one of the popular products sold by the world’s biggest toymaker.

environment

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Lego has spent the past seven years trying to make its blocks with plant-based plastic, but it keeps hitting brick walls*.

Lego tried making pieces from corn, but they were too soft. Its wheat-based bricks didn’t absorb colour evenly or have enough shine. Bricks made from other materials were too hard to pull apart, broke or had what Lego calls “creep,” when bricks lose their grip and collapse.

“It’s a bit like putting the man on the moon,” said Tim Guy Brooks, Lego’s head of environmental responsibility, of the toymaker’s quest to make bricks from plants.

“When (former US President) Kennedy said he wanted to put a man on the moon, lots of the technology and requirements didn’t exist. We need to go out and build that.”

media_cameraWhen US President Kennedy announced in 1961 that astronauts would go to the moon, the technology didn’t exist to do it. By 1969, Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin were standing on the moon with a US flag. Picture: AFP/NASA

Danish company Lego is the world’s biggest toymaker, selling 50 billion bricks a year.

In 2012 it promised to find and start using sustainable* alternatives to its raw materials by 2030. Realising the difficulty of the challenge, it later invested $216 million to hire scientists and pay for research and development.

Lego has so far tested more than 200 combinations of materials, but just 2 per cent of its products are made from plant-based plastic.

Last year Lego started selling toy trees, bushes and leaves of plastic made from sugar cane grown in Brazil. These pieces are similar to Lego’s earlier softer pieces, such as dragon wings, fishing rods and plants.

The 15 famous LEGO pine trees and several flower sets have been recreated and supersized to be 66 times bigger. The LEGO trees are now located at Dunningham Reserve, Coogee and marks the 50th anniversary of the LEGO brick in Australia. Picture: Brad Hunter media_cameraGiant Lego trees and flowers on Coogee Beach, NSW to mark the company’s 50th anniversary. In 2018 Lego started making some of its softer pieces, such as leaves and trees, from plastic made from sugar cane. Picture: Brad Hunter

Lego said it is still exploring several promising options, but the search is proving difficult.

Some materials tested were difficult to mould with Lego’s existing machinery. Recycled plastic is an option, but Lego needs large food-grade* volumes with guarantees on where the plastic came from and quality.

“We have to believe we will do it,” said Mr Brooks.

Ikea is also trying to move away from regular plastic. But so far, its only plant-based plastic product is a freezer bag. “These technologies are in a start-up phase,” said IKEA’s Johan Bruck. “We still see a lot of challenges for how to produce these materials in an efficient way.”

Coca-Cola Co. in 2013 promised all its plastic bottles would include plant-based material by 2020, but later scrapped the target and said it would focus on recycling instead.

For now, there are no laws making Lego move to plant-based plastics but Lego wants to protect its image.

“We can’t say we inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow if we’re ruining the planet,” said Mr Brooks.

media_cameraLego aims to inspire the builders of tomorrow, so it is a good idea for the company’s image to be seen to be looking after the Earth for the future. Picture: supplied

Lego has demanding criteria*. Its bricks must click together but be easy to pull apart, keep their colour and shape across a range of temperatures and be robust* enough to not break when dropped. They must last decades and can’t contain any chemicals that might be harmful to children.

“If you build that castle, you want that castle to stand up in five years time, 10 years time and not the bricks to change shape and the turrets* to fall over,” said Mr Brooks.

media_cameraLego Masters Australia 2019 winners Henry and Cade showed that regular Lego bricks can be used to make incredible creations. Lego wants to be sure that a change of plastic doesn’t change the way its bricks function.

To try to make progress, Lego has started co-operating with other companies such as Nestlé SA, Procter & Gamble Co. and McDonald’s Corp.

Coca-Cola recently began sharing its plant-bottle technology with other companies. Four years ago it developed a recyclable bottle made entirely* from plants but hasn’t found an efficient way to mass produce it.

Coca-Cola has sold bottles using 30 per cent plant-based packaging since 2009. But unlike Coca-Cola, when Lego couldn’t find a way to source the remaining 70 per cent, it decided not to continue with that product.

“Ultimately we want a zero-impact product,” said Mr Brooks.

media_cameraThe world’s first real Lego car with an engine, seen in May at Lego House in Billund, Denmark, which is the company’s headquarters. Picture: AFP

For now, there’s always Lego’s version of recycling.

Customers write to Lego asking if it accepts old bricks for recycling but the company says it doesn’t see the need to grind up bricks designed to last generations. It asks customers to gift them to someone else.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in the Wall Street Journal and is republished here with permission.

VIDEO: In 2017, Lego ran a competition. The prize was one night for one family alone in the LEGO House in Denmark, which is made from 25 million bricks. Imagine!

A night at the LEGO House

GLOSSARY

  • hitting brick walls: an expression that means coming up against a problem difficult to beat
  • sustainable: able to continue forever without running out of ingredients or ruining the environment
  • food-grade: the same standard as would be used for food packaging
  • criteria: a standard by which something is judged
  • robust: hard to break
  • turrets: small tower on top of another tower or on a corner of a building
  • entirely: completely

EXTRA READING

New brick buddies crowned Lego Masters

Turning plastic into something precious

3D printer making recycled plastic fantastic

High hopes for Aussie invention

Your big ideas for recycling could save the world

QUICK QUIZ

  1. What was wrong with the Lego made from wheat?
  2. Why is the 1969 moon mission mentioned?
  3. What are some of the criteria a new plastic must meet?
  4. Who are this year’s Lego Masters?
  5. Does Lego accept bricks for recycling?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Explain your position

Lego and other companies have attempted to become more sustainable by developing plant-based plastic pieces or packaging but have had some difficulties achieving their goals. It is commendable that they are working towards improving our environment but obviously more needs to be done.

Choose one of the companies mentioned in the article. Pretend you are the CEO (Chief Executive Officer – in charge of managerial decisions) of that company. Write a letter to your shareholders and customers explaining why you haven’t achieved your goals yet and what you are doing to continue to strive for them. Make sure you mention why this is one of your company’s goals and how achieving it will be beneficial to everyone.

Are there any other environmental adjustments you can suggest for your company in the meantime? (For example: Are the plastic bags inside the boxes necessary? What could be used instead?)

Address and format your letter using correct business letter format.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Sustainability, Technologies – Design and Technologies, Science

2. Extension
When Lego does succeed in producing pieces made with plant-based plastic they will want to advertise their new sustainably produced product.

Come up with a slogan that Lego can use in their advertising that highlights the environmental benefits of their new product. Your slogan should be a catchy phrase that is easy to remember.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, The Arts – Media

VCOP ACTIVITY

With a partner see if you can identify all the doing words/verbs in this text. Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb. Make sure it still makes sense in the context it was taken from.

Try to replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.

HAVE YOUR SAY: How do you feel about buying more Lego made of regular plastic? Would you be happier if the bricks were plant-based plastic? Is Lego doing enough to change its product?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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