/Lego Struggles to Find a Plant-Based Plastic That Clicks
Lego Struggles to Find a Plant-Based Plastic That Clicks

Lego Struggles to Find a Plant-Based Plastic That Clicks


BILLUND, Denmark—Lego A/S has spent the past seven years trying to make its blocks with plastic derived from plants, but it keeps hitting brick walls.
The world’s biggest toy maker in 2012 pledged to find and start using sustainable alternatives to its raw materials by 2030. Realizing the scale of the challenge, it later invested $150 million to hire scientists and fund research and development.
Lego has so far tested more than 200 combinations of materials, but just 2% of its products are made from plant-based plastic. The Danish company says it is still exploring several promising options, but finding the material to hit its target is proving difficult.
“I wouldn’t stake my family on it, but we have to believe we will do it,” says Tim Guy Brooks, Lego’s head of environmental responsibility. “We don’t set targets that we don’t put our weight behind.”
For now, pressure on Lego is self-imposed. Consumer and regulatory concerns about plastic have focused on single-use products such as straws and bags, not toys. But worries about climate change are broadening scrutiny, and executives want to protect Lego’s wholesome image.

Plant Plastics

Ethanol derived from sugar cane is turned into plastic used to make Lego pieces.

Ethylene goes to polymerization units, transforming into polyethylene.

Sugar cane is harvested and crushed to yield a juice, which is turned into ethanol and sugar.

The ethanol is dehydrated in reactors and converted into ethylene.

Plastic resin arrives at Lego factories on trucks and is stored in big silos.

Pipes transport the resin through the factory to be dyed, heated and fed into molding machines to form Lego pieces.

The ethanol is dehydrated in reactors and converted into ethylene.

Sugar cane is harvested and crushed to yield a juice, which is turned into ethanol and sugar.

Plastic resin arrives at Lego factories on trucks and is stored in big silos.

Ethylene goes to polymerization units, transforming into polyethylene.

Pipes transport the resin through the factory to be dyed, heated and fed into molding machines to form Lego pieces.

The ethanol is dehydrated in reactors and converted into ethylene.

Ethylene goes to polymerization units, transforming into polyethylene.

Sugar cane is harvested and crushed to yield a juice, which is turned into ethanol and sugar.

Plastic resin arrives at Lego factories on trucks and is stored in big silos.

Pipes transport the resin through the factory to be dyed, heated and fed into molding machines to form Lego pieces.

Sugar cane is harvested and crushed to yield a juice, which is turned into ethanol and sugar.

The ethanol is dehydrated in reactors and converted into ethylene.

Ethylene goes to polymerization units, transforming into polyethylene.

Plastic resin arrives at Lego factories on trucks and is stored in big silos.

Pipes transport the resin through the factory to be dyed, heated and fed into molding machines to form Lego pieces.

“We can’t say we inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow if we’re ruining the planet,” said Mr. Brooks.
Lego’s slow progress is emblematic of a broader struggle to use plants like corn and sugar cane instead of oil to make plastic, which advocates say would lower greenhouse-gas emissions.
Coca-Cola
Co.
in 2013 promised all its plastic bottles would include plant-based material by 2020, but it scrapped the target citing “resource constraints” and said it would focus on recycling instead.
IKEA is also trying to move away from oil. But so far, its only plant-based plastic product is a freezer bag. “These technologies are in a startup phase,” says Johan Bruck, deputy material-innovation head. “We still see a lot of challenges for how to produce these materials in an efficient way.”
Despite being around for decades, plant-based plastics represent under 1% of the 359 million metric tons of plastic produced annually, according to European Bioplastics, a trade body. It says research-and-development costs and misconceptions about environmental benefits have held the industry back. Critics say growing crops to make plastic can compete with land for food production. Industry research disputes this, saying bioplastics use 0.02% of agricultural land.

A Lego display at the company’s experience center in Billund, Denmark.


Photo:

Saabira Chaudhuri/The Wall Street Journal

To spur production, European Bioplastics is lobbying governments to introduce financial incentives for bioplastics and move their focus beyond recycling.
Executives say new materials require industry investment but chemicals companies are motivated to invest only when they have committed buyers. Without industry participation, Lego says it won’t hit its goal.
To break the deadlock Lego is sharing its findings with other companies and has joined an alliance—including
Nestlé
SA,
Procter & Gamble
Co.
and
McDonald’s
Corp.
—trying to develop a supply chain for plant-based plastics.
Coca-Cola recently began sharing its plant-bottle technology with other companies, hoping to boost demand for plant-based plastics. The soda giant four years ago developed a recyclable bottle made entirely from plants but hasn’t found an efficient way to scale it up.
Last year Lego started selling toy trees, bushes and leaves made from plastic derived from sugar cane grown in Brazil. These softer Lego pieces mimic oil-based polyethylene.
Using plant-based plastic for the over 50 billion bricks Lego sells annually is a much bigger challenge because there isn’t a natural version of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, the polymer it uses. So far, efforts to find one haven’t borne fruit.
“They just did the easy part,” says Michael Carus, founder of the Nova Institute, which researches biobased materials. He says existing technology to turn used cooking oil into plastic could be used to make the sustainable plastic Lego needs for bricks but estimates this could cost Lego up to five times more. “The technology is there, it’s the implementation that is difficult.”
Lego has demanding criteria. Its bricks must click together but be easy to pull apart, keep their color and shape across a range of temperatures and be robust enough to not break when dropped. They must not biodegrade because they are intended to last decades, can’t contain any chemicals of concern and must use fewer resources.
“There’s no point saying this is made from sugar cane if it needed lots of water, or the labor isn’t paid well or it took lots of energy for us to mold it,” said Mr. Brooks.

Lego elements coming off a molding machine at a Lego factory. Last year Lego started selling toy trees, bushes and leaves made from plastic derived from sugar cane.


Photo:

Lego

Lego tried making bricks from corn, but they were too soft. Its wheat-based bricks didn’t absorb color evenly or have the requisite shine. Bricks made from other materials proved too hard to pull apart, broke or had what executives call “creep,” when bricks lose their grip and collapse.
Others proved problematic to mold with Lego’s existing machinery. Recycled material is an option, but Lego needs large volumes with guarantees on provenance and quality.
Lego has had some success with plastic partly made of plants. So has Coca-Cola, which has sold bottles using 30% plant-based packaging since 2009. But unlike Coca-Cola, when Lego couldn’t find a way to source the remaining 70%, it decided not to go to market.
“Ultimately we want a zero-impact product,” said Mr. Brooks. “We want to be able to say these bricks that you get off the shelf do not damage the planet or people in any way, shape or form.”

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Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at saabira.chaudhuri@wsj.com
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