Building a Fossil Fuel-Free Future with Lego

Jed Oelbaum

You can pretty much find anything made out of Lego these days, from the Ghostbusters firehouse,  to the Taj Mahal, to a life-size Ford Mustang replica. So beloved is the 85-year-old Danish brand that there’s a blockbuster film franchise, an expanding empire of theme parks, and summer camps that use Legos to teach engineering. But to generations of kids (and their parents), Lego is first and foremost an ever-expanding galaxy of building blocks that has put hundreds of billions of colorful little plastic components into the world.

And plastics, though incredibly useful, have become a problem. Made from fossil fuels, a major driver of climate change, the plastics industry accounts for about 4 percent of all oil production worldwide. Plastic also essentially never breaks down on its own, piling up in landfills, littering our ecosystems, and filtering through our food chains as its microparticles are gobbled up by marine life. For a company as heavily associated with kids and childhood as Lego, it’s hard to escape that its block-headed people and toothy bricks are being made in way that doesn’t leave the world a better place for future generations.

Bearing that in mind, Lego has launched significant environmental initiatives, like powering its company on 100-percent renewable energy. It is also tackling its plastic predicament head-on with the Lego Sustainable Materials Center, a roughly $150 million research program to find replacements for the plastics in its toys. Last year the company partnered with the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, an industry environmental group associated with the World Wildlife Fund, and more recently, the company has begun experimenting with toys made from renewable resources like wheat.

“Right now we use around 90,000 tons of plastic resin per year. And that all comes from fossil fuel-based raw material,” says Matthew Whitby, sustainability spokesperson for Lego. “So instead, what we’re looking to do is make that either recycled [materials] or bioplastics.” The latter are usually engineered from plants with the help of microorganisms like bacteria or yeast.

The company is giving itself until 2030 to complete the switch to sustainable materials, as the road to tomorrow’s Lego castle will be a challenging quest. “It’s such a long-term project for us, because we want to really work with our partners to make sure that the material is actually making a positive impact on the planet,” says Whitby.

Sustainable plastics are still a developing field, and so far, neither bioplastics nor our existing system of recycling can provide a truly environmentally friendly, cost-effective substitute for Lego’s bright colors, generation-spanning durability, or satisfying click-together snap that marks real Legos from the knockoff bricks you can find mixed into less discerning toy chests. Plastic may be an environmental scourge, but the same qualities that mean it will basically never break down in a landfill give it a sturdiness and impact resistance that make for excellent toys.

“The essential 2-by-4 brick is made out of ABS, and that’s the bulk of our plastic,” says Whitby. “It’s a very, very good play material, and it represents most of the qualities we’re looking for, in terms of durability, in terms of hardness, and shine.” All in all, Lego currently uses about 20 different plastics in its building sets, but that doesn’t mean the company necessarily need to find 20 different sustainable alternatives, says Whitby. For now, the company’s strategy is instead focusing on qualities that deliver what Whitby calls Lego’s exceptional “play value.”

“When you play with Lego Technic, and you have an axle—some elements need to be very strong, and strength is the most important thing we’re looking for there. Whereas in other elements, we need flexibility. And other pieces need to shine, or need a matte finish,” he says.

Lego contracts out most of the chemistry, through materials suppliers and outside labs. But when new raw materials come in, they’re molded into experimental batches at Lego’s own test facility, then subjected to about 10 different physical trials. Each is spun, battered, and dropped over and over again to make sure it can safely withstand the punishment of playtime. “We test them to make sure that if a child puts a brick in their mouth, saliva wouldn’t pull any substances or colors out,” says Whitby. “There is a machine that literally just hits the brick multiple times with the simulated force of a child.”

Citing “competitive issues,” Lego representatives didn’t want to disclose the exact materials they’ve been putting through the mechanized-kid gauntlet lately, but they’ve done at least some testing with plastics made from sugar, starch, and wheat.

In trials of some of these renewably sourced materials earlier this year, Lego struggled with “the ability of the bioplastic bricks to maintain stiffness over time,” explains Doug Smock, who offers plastics industry news and analysis at The Molding Blog. “Bricks made of a popular bioplastic suffered from ‘creep’ and fell apart,” he says in an email. Another substance lacked long-term “clutch,” a measure of Lego blocks’ ability to grip together and stay that way.

Beyond the play-related properties the company is looking for, there are other hurdles to overcome before bioplastics can be a truly sustainable solution. Switching to a plant-based plastic might sound like a good way to make a more environmentally friendly brick. But “just because something is a biomaterial, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable,” says Whitby. “We can’t compromise on the way the material is sourced and produced.”

David Tyler, a plastics expert and University of Oregon professor, attempts to assess the true net environmental impact of a given product or material through a process called life-cycle analysis. To get the whole picture, “you really have to look at the very beginning of the product’s life all the way to the end, where it’s eventually disposed of,” he says in a phone call.

Right now, he tells me, there’s a lot of enthusiasm around the idea of bioplastics—both among consumers and companies like Lego looking for Earth-friendly options. But if you’re making plastic out of agricultural crops, “you have to farm to raise the corn or wheat or potatoes that you’re going to make the plastics out of,” says Tyler. “And that takes a lot of energy and water, and herbicides and pesticides, so that’s not necessarily better for the environment in terms of global warming—in terms of, let’s say, water use, land use, and things like that.”

Smock also points out that some bioplastics—despite being made from renewably sourced chemicals rather than fossil fuels—still don’t degrade on their own in nature. Even plastics currently sold as “biodegradable” require the pressure and heat of a commercial composter to break down. “Because a plastic is labeled biodegradable does not mean it will biodegrade in the ocean or if thrown out of a car,” says Smock.

The life-cycle analyses Tyler has seen for corn- and wheat-based plastics haven’t shown them to be truly sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel materials yet. Tyler thinks Lego “should look into recycling. Finding a cheaper way to get a better recycled starting plastic.”

But the recycling process as it exists now can result in weakening of some of the qualities—like impact resistance and colorfastness—that Lego needs to make toys that can survive thousands of hours of play. Also, these days “petroleum is so cheap … that no one wants to use recycled plastics,” adds Tyler.

Whitby says the company is examining recycling options, and notes that he’s starting to see more corporate investment in this area. But, he says, sorting out the challenges of recycled plastic or bioplastics will be a long, complex, expensive process no matter which option wins out in the end. Add in the company’s standards for play-related qualities and the 2030 target completion date starts to make a lot more sense. It just might take a decade and a half of smashing vegetable-derived Lego men in labs before the company can claim fossil fuel-free toys. Even with the challenges that would have to be overcome to make bioplastics or recycled plastics work, Lego’s timeline for sustainable switchover “sounds really reasonable,” says Tyler.

“I certainly applaud Lego for taking leadership on finding sustainability solutions,” says Smock. “I think the technical problems can be solved, and many big suppliers are contributing to the effort.” And Lego isn’t out there alone—there are a lot of companies putting money into alternative plastics research right now. “Modern science is totally collaborative,” Tyler says. Smock notes DuPont’s efforts to make more industrial materials from renewable resources like waste biomass and algae, which could, in theory, provide solutions for companies like Lego down the road.

This early in Lego’s search, no one knows yet whether kids in 2030 will be playing with blocks made from turnips, or sugar, or even sewage. And that’s OK, says Whitby. “It’s not a marketing plan, where we could lay out every step. We looked at the future and said, ‘this is something we really want to do,’ so we set the bar really high for ourselves. … It would be impossible to have an exact journey planned.”