Many of us will have grown up with this childhood (and for some adulthood) institution, and those of you with children will appreciate it is possibly one of the most painful things known to man when found with a bare foot. Yes, I’m talking about LEGO!
Plastics are a hot topic and mostly for all the wrong reasons. Research has highlighted their negative environmental impact from production, disposal and long-term contamination of the environment. But at a time when plastic use is coming under great scrutiny, what are LEGO, whose foundations are built on plastic products, doing to alleviate the problem?
We spoke to Tim Brooks (TB), VP Environmental Responsibility, LEGO Group about their commitment to use sustainable materials in core products and packaging by 2030, a pledge which is already well underway.
KS: What instigated the initiative to explore using plant-based plastics in place of traditional plastics in some Lego products? Were other alternatives tried prior to settling on sugarcane-derived plastic?
TB: In 2015 we announced our commitment to invest DKK 1 billion into R&D dedicated to finding sustainable materials. As a purpose-driven company with a long-term mission and aspiration, we believe this is the right thing to do, and we are uniquely placed to deliver on our responsibility to have a positive impact on children, society and the planet. In 2018 we introduced the first LEGO elements made from plant-based plastic, the highlight of those were our botanical range which we called “Plants from Plants”. These are trees, leaves and bushes made from polyethylene plastic produced using sustainably sourced sugarcane. The new elements represent the first big step towards the LEGO Group’s ambitions of using sustainable materials in all core products and packaging by 2030.
KS: What have been the biggest challenges in transitioning to production with plant-based plastics?
TB: Our 2030 goal is an ambitious one, and one that will take lots of both small and large steps. It is important that we never compromise on the high quality and safety standards that we have, and consumers expect. The LEGO Group currently uses more than 20 types of plastic to make LEGO elements and we have decided to implement changes to elements once we are satisfied of the quality and safety. Our extensive testing showed that polyethylene elements can be made with the same quality using existing sustainably sourced materials, and so we have made this change now. We are working hard to ensure that other LEGO elements can be made with sustainable materials.
KS: How has the move been received by consumers, have you seen any impact on sales of these products?
TB: We received a very positive response from consumers on our social media channels and in the direct interactions with consumers at LEGO building events at our brand retail stores. We conducted a campaign where over 100,000 LEGO boxes of the plant-based elements were given to consumers in the US, Canada, UK or Germany as a gift based on purchasing any item of more than $35 or £35/EUR 35 in LEGO Brand Retail stores. Later in the year we launched the exclusive LEGO Vestas Wind turbine, which features some of the plant-based elements.
KS: The damaging effects of plastic on the environment have been broadly publicized recently, however sugarcane cultivation can also has significant negative impacts on the environment through habitat destruction and the water and energy required for processing. How are Lego balancing this trade-off?
TB: The sugarcane used to make the plant-based plastic is sourced sustainably in accordance with the suppliers Responsible Ethanol Sourcing Framework based on best practices. It is also certified by third party standards for responsibly sourced sugarcane and third party audited. The LEGO Group has also joined the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance founded by the WWF. The Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance is a multi-stakeholder forum focused on increasing awareness around the environmental and social performance of potential feedstock sources for plant-based plastics.
KS: Do you foresee a time where all Lego products will be made from plant-based plastics?
TB: As part of the 2030 sustainable materials challenge the LEGO Group is working on developing new materials using both plant-based and recycled plastics. Use of recycled materials presents many challenges, and to ensure that the product safety and quality is not compromised we are currently working on finding the right solution for using recycled materials in our products. We expect that in the future, some of our different elements will be plant-based, some will be made from recycled material, and some will be both.
Tim Brooks was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.