The LEGO Group researches sustainable replacement for ABS

Research by the LEGO Group into a replacement for ABS plastic continues as the company looks to minimise its environmental impact.

CEO Bali Padda recently referred to the LEGO Group’s intention to find a more environmentally friendly material during a Fan Media event, with an Quartz article now discussing the push for sustainable materials and the LEGO Group’s place in it.

The article highlights the reason behind companies now looking to go beyond renewable energy in their sustainability drives.

Many big brands have set renewable-energy targets to help reduce their carbon dioxide footprints, but a recently published study concludes offsetting carbon emissions by investing in renewable energy isn’t enough to save the planet. We’ll also need to actually reduce carbon emissions. In 2015, Lego set another target: replacing 20 types of conventional plastics used in making its bricks with sustainable materials by 2030 to help curb the company’s total carbon dioxide emissions.

The amount of money being pumped into the research demonstrates the commitment that Padda and his team to have to sustainability, going far beyond lip service.

The Denmark-based toy maker invested $155 million into a Sustainable Materials Center, where materials specialists are exploring alternatives to plastics made from fossil fuels. Lego attributes just 10% of the carbon dioxide emitted during the lifecycle of Lego bricks to the company’s own factories, offices, and stores. The other 90% comes from sources outside its direct control, such as product transport and distribution—and from the making of the tiny plastic chunks it sources from materials suppliers to build its bricks.

Finding alternatives to ABS, the plastic compound used to manufacture LEGO bricks, is a challenge as the company refuses to compromise on quality. Bioplastics offers one such option, as it is created from biodegradable materials – but currently representx just 1% of plastics produced. Consumer pressure is credited as pushing companies towards bioplastics, with Coca-Cola moving towards the material and estimating the benefit at 315,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

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A bioplastics test brick (left) alongside a regular LEGO brick.

Tim Brooks, vice president of environmental responsibility for the Lego Group, oversees the work of the Sustainable Materials Center’s 70 experts whose challenging job includes meeting the company’s exacting standards for product safety, quality, and durability. Every potential bioplastic is tested for strength, stiffness, dimensional stability, and impact strength—measured by whether an element could break or splinter during play. “I’m about to pass on the Lego bricks I played with as a child and the bricks my dad passed down to me to my son,” says Brooks. “We know Lego bricks are often passed down through generations—making it so important that the sustainable materials chosen for our products be extremely durable.”

Of course it isn’t just basic bricks that Brooks has to consider when researching possible new plastics.

Every Lego element demands something different from a sustainable material. Bricks require tough materials like ABS; axles and gear wheels need strong materials with low friction; small connectors require strong material that is also stiff; and tires should be soft. “We want any bio-based material to be capable of being precisely molded, or to mold to just a few microns,” says Brooks, “and we want it to be shiny.” Brooks pointed to a side-by-side comparison of two green Lego bricks: one a sample made of wheat sugar and the other a traditional plastic. The test brick’s color was dull and flat compared with the shiny, bright-green traditional brick.

With the resources being put into the research, and the success of the LEGO Group’s renewable energy drive, a replacement to ABS seems an inevitable part of the company’s future.

Brooks says, “We know that making bricks has an impact on the planet, and we want it to be a positive one.”

LEGO SYSTEM A/S

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