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Lego Duplo blocks

Will Lego’s $150 Million Sustainable Plastics Challenge Make Biobased the Norm?

Lego Duplo blocksLego is pumping millions of dollars into its quest to find new, sustainable materials for its popular plastic toy bricks. While the company’s goal with this initiative is to build better toys, it may end up shifting the plastics industry away from its oil-based roots.

“We expect both established and emerging companies within the bio-based plastics industry to look closely at how their technology may fit in with Lego’s goal.” Lux Research associate Jennie Lynch told Environmental Leader.

Last year Lego said it would spend 1 billion Danish Krone ($150.5 million) to develop new sustainable materials for its plastic Lego toys and packaging materials. This includes the establishment of the Lego Sustainable Materials Centre in Billund, Denmark.

The company has already hired at least 100 engineers to develop alternatives to petroleum-based materials and is making good on its promises.

It’s a big deal for Lego, which Fast Company calls “the Apple of toys,” moving from near bankruptcy in 2003 to briefly beating rival Mattel for a stint in 2014 to become the biggest toy manufacturer in the world.

Amid its financial success, the company has taken efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, such as investing in wind farms to offset the energy used in factories and achieve its goal of using 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Between 2013 and 2014, Lego also reduced the size of its boxes by an average of 14 percent to use less cardboard, Lego spokesperson Kathrine Bisgaard Vase told Environmental Leader. “In 2015, this amounted to approximately 7,000 tonnes less cardboard used,” she said. “In 2015, we also reached the highest level yet of recycling waste, at 93 percent, and reached our goal of using 100 percent Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper and packaging in our operations.”

While the company is working to reduce its global footprint across several initiatives, finding a sustainable material from which to manufacture Legos is a major one — and the company’s sustainable materials investment is a big deal for the industry as well.

“It is exciting to see such a well-recognized company rethinking the traditional supply chain and devoting significant resources to cutting edge research and development for new materials that are environmentally conscious,” said Kim Holmes, senior director of recycling and diversion at SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association. “As an industry association, it is our goal that through the work of innovative brands like Lego, The Coca-Cola Company and others investing in R&D, sustainability will increasingly become the norm. Many of our member companies are committed to reducing the environmental footprint of plastics products from conception to production.”

Coca-Cola, for example, has partnered with three technology developers — Gevo, Virent and Avantium — to achieve commercial-scale production of it biobased PlantBottle, a replacement for its conventional plastic bottle. Coca-Cola is also participating in a new sustainable plastics initiative that launched last month, called the New Plastics Economy. It aims to increase recycling and reuse as well as bioplastics.

So what materials are Lego researchers considering? Bisgaard Vase said that while it’s still too early to say what materials will replace traditional plastic, safety and quality will be top priorities. And, she says, the company wants materials that will not look or feel any different.

“Lego bricks are made from the highest quality plastics, which is very functional and durable as a material. However, the current raw materials we use for manufacturing Lego bricks are oil-based, and that is a scarce resource,” Bisgaard Vase said. “So we are searching for a new material that is not based on oil.

“Our aim is to have a positive impact on the planet, and that means searching for new materials in a broader sense to have alternatives to the oil-based plastic used for bricks and plastic packaging, but also to continue improving our paper-based boxes to be more sustainable. All of which are significant contributors to our environmental footprint, and therefore we are focusing on several efforts at the same time.”

Lynch said recycled or reclaimed plastics may not work for Lego because of safety and quality concerns. “Challenges associated with identifying the source of recycled materials, as well as concerns about the reuse of hazardous resins such as PVC, could present contamination issues for Lego,” she explained. “In addition, the quality of recycled plastic resin degrades every time it is reused, meaning this is unlikely to meet the durability requirements set by the company for its products. With that in mind, the difficulties associated with using recycled or reclaimed materials highlights an opportunity for emerging technologies to provide a solution to Lego’s problem.”

There are several companies developing these types of biobased alternatives, Lynch says. Global Bioenergies, for example, is developing bio-based, drop-in precursors to acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) — that’s the plastic from which Lego blocks are current made.

“Other companies are focused on the production of substitute bio-based polymers with improved material performance compared to incumbents,” she says. “For instance, polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) producers like Newlight Technologies, which has partnered with IKEA, claims its AirCarbon PHA has equal or superior properties to petroleum-derived polymers. And Avantium, which has partnered with Coca-Cola, positions its superior performing polyethylene furanoate (PEF) as a replacement to polyterephthalic acid (PET). There are also more established players in this field, with collaborations between Siemens and BASF leading to new hybrid materials with the potential to compete with incumbents.”

The momentum to shift the plastics industry away from oil-based materials seems to be there. And with a financial boost from companies like Lego with deep pockets, bringing these new biobased alternatives to market looks promising.

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