Lego has announced that, after intensive testing and high optimism, they have given up on trying to make their famous toy bricks out of recycled plastic bottles, as the manufacturing process would in the end result in more carbon emissions than using oil-based plastic.
In 2021, the toy manufacturer announced it was researching ways of swapping the oil-based acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which needs about 2kg of petroleum to make 1kg of plastic, with recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET). The rPET material is not as durable as ABS, a property that makes Lego bricks easily fit together and disassemble, as well as safe for children. To achieve the same “strict quality, safety and durability requirements”, rPET needed to be mixed with more additional ingredients and required a longer drying time, all in all resulting in higher carbon emissions than using ABS.
It’s like trying to make a bike out of wood rather than steel.Tim Brooks, Lego Head of Sustainability
“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”, Lego’s head of sustainability, Tim Brooks, told the Financial Times.
The company has revealed in a statement that it has been testing more than 300 different materials to try and swap ABS, but unfortunately, the rPET is not one of the successful ones. On the other hand, in 2018, Lego successfully replaced oil-based polyethylene for a plant-based version of the same plastic in all its botanical elements and accessories, such as trees and bushes.
Despite Lego’s disappointment with the performance of rPET, the beverage industry has welcomed the news with opened arms, as it has been fighting for some time to close the loop on rPET and demanding priority in access to used plastic bottles. Lego’s announcement “will help avoid the further downcycling of our beverage bottles into non-food applications. As we have always stressed, closed loops promote true circularity. We need to ensure beverage packaging is recycled in new beverage packaging, when technically feasible and when it makes sense from an environmental viewpoint”, said Nicholas Hodac, Director General of UNESDA, the association representing Europe’s soft drinks industry,
Regardless of the small setback, Lego remains committed to its sustainability journey and plans on tripling spending on sustainability initiatives to $1.4 billion by 2025. The company plans on focusing on reducing overall carbon emissions rather than just on substituting oil-based products, which, as was the case of the rPET, can be contradictory.
“In the early days, the belief was that it was easier to find this magic material or this new material” that would solve the sustainability issue, 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.”
Lego is planning on reducing carbon emissions by 37% by 2032 and reaching net zero by 2050. “We have learned a lot and will apply those learnings as we continue to develop new materials and explore other ways to make our bricks more sustainable”, the company said.
“It’s not going from being 0 to 100 per cent sustainable from one day to the next, but you start with elements of it being based on either biomaterials or recycled materials. Maybe it’s 50 per cent, or 30 per cent, or 70 per cent based on that”, Christiansen said.
Besides the shift in sustainability goals from replacing materials to reducing carbon emissions, Brooks has revealed that they are also working on reusing schemes and programmes, incentivising people to bring in their old sets, which are then cleaned and either resold or donated to charities. “It’s better to reuse than recycle”, Brooks argued.