The Planet

Lego Builds Big in Its Search for Sustainable Plastics

by Jed Oelbaum

June 17, 2015
Image by Benjamin Esham via Flickr

Go into almost any home with children, and you’re likely to find Legos. Maybe the kids put together one of the brand’s many specialty sets, recreating a scene from Star Wars. Or maybe they just followed their imaginations, building something strange and unique. Perhaps the pieces are just scattered all over the floor, and as you step unassumingly into the room, you stumble on the bricks’ trademark pointy corners, howling in a familiar pain that takes you back to the heady, magically creative days of your own childhood. In any case, there’s a lot of Lego out there—according to ‎Tim Brooks, Senior Director of Environmental Sustainability at Lego, there are more than 90 times as many Lego pieces as there are human beings on Earth. So it’s a relief to hear that the company is investing one billion kroner (over $150 million) to sustainably replace the oil-based plastics used to make the ubiquitous toy bricks.

Lego’s been through something of a renaissance over the last decade, becoming, in certain circles (like the TED talk set), almost shorthand for a kind of pure, idealized, childlike creativity. They’ve worked to be seen as responsible corporate citizens, reducing their packaging and dropping a 50-year partnership with serial polluter Shell Oil after Greenpeace very publicly called them out with the “awesome” video below:

The video that finally got Lego to drop its ties with villainous megacorp Shell Oil

But their core product remains a leftover from the golden age of plastic. And though it may seem like it would be easy to just throw some new-fangled, vegetable-based materials at the problem, the company’s needs—maintaining standards for color, stability and durability—have made the search for eco-friendly replacements difficult. A couple of years ago, Lego undertook what they believe will be a 15-year search for a new kind of plastic. “I need to find a material that will be just as good in 50 years,” Lego's senior project manager, Allan Rasmussen, said in early 2014, “because these are passed down from generation to generation.”

The company’s new round of investment in a greener Lego set will establish a Sustainable Materials Center at their Danish headquarters. According to the Lego site, “the LEGO Group expects to recruit more than 100 specialists within the materials field during the coming years to work on this challenging ambition,” with the goal of completely replacing oil-based plastics in their products by 2030.  

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Lego Builds Big in Its Search for Sustainable Plastics