Lego intensifies search for sustainable bricks

Elementary school students build a motion sensor controlled disinfectant dispenser from Lego parts during a workshop, following a novel coronavirus outbreak, in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Fabian Hamacher

Danish toymaker Lego plans to invest $400 million over the next three years to step up efforts to produce its colourful bricks using sustainable materials instead of oil-based plastic.

The investment will help Lego reach a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2022 in terms of its production and phase out single-use plastic in packaging by 2025 and replace plastic bricks with ones made from sustainable materials by the end of the decade.

Lego’s search for a suitable alternative to oil-based plastic has proven difficult. Over the last five years, a team of more than 150 engineers and scientists have been testing many different plant-based and recycled materials.

“The difficulty is getting to where the bricks have the same colour, the same shine, the same sound,” Tim Brooks, Lego’s vice president of environmental responsibility, said in an interview.

In 2015, the company announced a $150 million investment into using sustainable materials for its products. Most of the new $400 million investment will be spent on finding more sustainable materials for products and packaging, and implementing the changes, the company said.

Lego uses some 90,000 tonnes of plastic in its products each year, but since 2018, the company has made some of the less rigid parts of Lego sets, such as plants and trees, from bio-polyethylene, a type of plastic made from ethanol, produced using sugarcane. 

The material does not work as well for the standard hard bricks that are still made from oil-based plastic. Lego is testing how to use bio-polyethylene for the hard bricks.

“The challenge is making a softer material work in a brick previously made with a harder material,” Brooks said.    

One of the biggest problems is making the bricks stick together while also coming apart easily.

“The bricks need to be made with the precision of a hair’s width. Some of them we had to take apart with pliers and wrenches,” Brooks said, referring to bricks made with bio-polyethylene.

The company did not say when it expects to have oil-free standard Lego bricks on the market.


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