Lego ditches oil-free brick in sustainability setback

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Lego has abandoned its highest-profile effort to ditch oil-based plastics from its bricks after finding that its new material led to higher carbon emissions, in a sign of the complex trade-offs companies face in their search for sustainability.

The world’s largest toymaker announced two years ago that it had tested a prototype brick made of recycled plastic bottles rather than oil-based ABS, currently used in about 80 per cent of the billions of pieces it makes each year.

However, Niels Christiansen, chief executive of the family-owned Danish group, told the Financial Times that using recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) would have led to higher carbon emissions over the product’s lifetime as it would have required new equipment.

Lego has instead decided to try to improve the carbon footprint over time of ABS, which currently needs about 2kg of petroleum to make 1kg of plastic.

“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, Christiansen said, 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’s change of tactics highlights the difficult decisions facing companies on sustainability where different targets such as eliminating the use of fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions can come into conflict.

The Danish toymaker initially had a target of eliminating all petroleum-based plastics in the 20 or so materials it uses in its play sets by 2030. It made a quick start in 2018 by swapping out oil-based polyethylene for a plant-based version of the same plastic that it uses in about 20 different pieces including trees and bushes.

It is also on track to eliminate single-use plastic bags used in packaging its bricks by 2025 with many current sets featuring paper containers instead.

But replacing ABS, a plastic that makes the bricks durable as well as easy to put together and pull apart — what the toymaker calls “clutch power” — has proved far harder.

Tim Brooks, Lego’s head of sustainability, said that on its own RPET was softer than ABS so needed extra ingredients to give it similar safety and durability to the existing plastic as well as large amounts of energy to process and dry it. “It’s like trying to make a bike out of wood rather than steel,” he said.

He added: “In order to scale production [of recycled PET], 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 is now aiming to make each constituent part of ABS — acrylonitrile butadiene styrene — more sustainable by gradually incorporating more bio-based and recycled material.

“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 bio materials or recycled materials. Maybe it’s 50 per cent, or 30 per cent, or 70 per cent based on that,” Christiansen said.

But he conceded that it would make things harder to communicate with consumers as initially it would be impossible to say the extent to which emissions had been reduced in any individual set.

Lego’s chief executive, however, insisted that the new focus was the right one and would help it meet its targets for 2032 of a 37 per cent reduction in emissions compared with 2019 and of only using sustainable materials by then.

The group intends to triple its spending on sustainability to $3bn a year by 2025, and Christiansen conceded that could hurt its profit margins as it would not pass on the higher cost of buying sustainable materials to consumers.

Brooks said that Lego had shifted from having a singular focus on sustainable materials to aiming for lower emissions and potentially circular materials that can be recycled and re-used. “RPET is a great example of why we’re not trying to be so dogmatic,” he added.

Another big push is to enable the billions of bricks sitting in children’s bedrooms to be reused or recycled into new ones.

Lego has started the Replay programme in the US and Canada — and which will come to Europe next year — in which people donate their bricks, which are then sorted and cleaned before going to charities.

Brooks said he hoped Lego would have answers to how to best collect and sort the bricks in the next two to three years before it launched a more commercial offering where people could earn money from handing back their old sets, which in turn could be reused and packaged as new sets.

“It’s better to reuse than recycle. So we’re looking at a circular business model — how do we earn revenue from recircling bricks. It’s quite a shift in thinking and ideas,” he added.

Source: Financial Times

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