#40320 ‘Plants from Plants’ is first step towards sustainability
In this chapter:
This article is based on an in-depth presentation by Matthew Whitby and Bistra Andersen on May 30, 2018 during the LEGO Fan Media Days event. Matthew is the Environmental Engagement Manager, and Bistra is part of the materials department, where she focuses on materials, colors, and printing. We were not allowed to take photos of the presentation materials, so I’ve done my best to capture verbatim quotes and re-create some of the key slides from the presentation.
Want to see them first hand? You can get a free box of ‘made from plants” LEGO plants with purchase at LEGO brand retail stores between August 1-15. More info about this promotional set at the end of this article.
While LEGO remains the premier plastic building toy, we live in a world where plastic is everywhere—in almost all consumer goods, in disposable packaging, and increasingly accumulating in our rivers and oceans. Plastics are no longer seen as the wonder materials that transformed our lives like they were in the 1950’s.
In this article, we will look at newly established sustainability goals at LEGO, consider potential motivations behind this investment, and check in on their current progress.
“Positive impact on world our children will inhabit”
—The LEGO Group
Before we get started, let’s review the most common materials currently used in LEGO sets:
- ABS (Acrylonitrile-Butadiene Styrene) – A rigid opaque plastic used for classic LEGO bricks in opaque colors.
- Polycarbonate – A rigid transparent plastic which is used for clear and colored transparent LEGO bricks.
- Polyethelene – A flexible plastic used for flexible parts such as plants and some Minifigure accessories. It has less clutch power than ABS parts.
- SBS (Styrene-Butadiene Styrene) – A stretchy plastic used for Tires and other elastic parts.
- Paper / Cardboard – While you might not think about it, LEGO uses a lot of paper products for packaging and instruction manuals.
Please note that this list is not exhaustive and is not sorted by weight or volume. Other materials include thin plastics, metal, circuit boards, other electronics, and more.
Sustainability at LEGO
The LEGO Group has set an ambitious goal: “by 2030, [to use] sustainable materials in all core products and packaging.” They are serious about this goal, and have invested $155 million dollars in a Sustainable Materials Center.
It is important to understand that The LEGO Group is a privately held company owned by the Christiansen family. This is why they are not beholden to the whims of their shareholders or board of directors, giving them the freedom to make long-term investments instead of focusing on short-term profits. It is also important to recognize that the company is firmly rooted in Danish culture, which prioritizes the well-being of their community and quality products.
The LEGO Group’s desire to reduce the environmental impact of their products seems sincere. That said, I’m also certain that they see this as an opportunity to differentiate LEGO products in a changing market, and develop market leading technology and patents in the field of sustainable materials and bioplastics.
Sustainability means different things to different people. Thankfully, they have shared their definition of sustainability with us, which helps us better understand their priorities:
“one that meets our high quality and safety standards, has key environmental and social sustainability attributes, and maximizes the play value of our products”
While a seemingly admirable goal, it is fair to point out that “has key sustainability attributes” is an open-ended goal, which gives them some wiggle room going forward. It would be easy for them to use a mix of sustainable plastics and new ABS if they are unable to switch from ABS to only using recycled and/or plant-based plastics.
Since they have mentioned both their environmental goals and their goals to maintain high-quality products, we will look at both of these goals separately…
If there was one message that they wanted to make sure we heard, it is that they want to ensure LEGO products maintain their existing high quality and 100% compatibility with current products.
During their presentation, they explicitly mentioned the unexpected backlash when changing from Gray to Bluish-Gray in the early 2000’s, so they are definitely well aware of the concern amongst LEGO fans that the new parts look the same as the current ABS plastics.
In addition to ensuring they maintain the appearance of current parts, it was interesting to learn about the stringest requirements that plastic parts are very durable (structural), and that they function well. This includes ensuring that parts with a shaft slide smoothly when they need to, that parts snap/clip together firmly, and that the knob-and-tube design ensures bricks maintain their clutch power over time.
Safety Requirements: In addition to rigorous tests of the product quality and durability, product safety is one of their most important requirements for these new plastics. This testing is even more involved than I would have guessed.
A few of the chemical testing requirements include:
- Accurate list of raw ingredients used in each plastic.
- Preventing color or substance migration out of the plastic (such as through sweat or saliva.)
- Ensuring that there are no hazardous substances.
- Detailed material content analysis (within legal limits.)
It was interesting to learn that LEGO bricks meet the same requirements as plastics used to store food, which makes sense since children often put LEGO products in their mouth.
The goal of this effort is to make the same long-lasting plastic toys using a mix of recycled and plant-based sources. To help us understand the scale of this endeavor, we were reminded that The LEGO Group produces 75 billion parts per year across more than 3700 unique elements and over 60 colors.
To be clear, they definitely do not want to make biodegradable products—this isn’t a priority because they have learned that most LEGO bricks are handed down to younger builders rather than being thrown out or recycled.
I was very pleased to see that The LEGO Group understands that the complete lifecycle of their products includes everything from sourcing raw materials to manufacturing, transportation, disposal of packaging and reuse of LEGO bricks.
“each iteration should reduce our environmental footprint vs. it’s predecessor”
Their commitment to constant improvement was probably the most interesting detail, as it helps us understand that their goals are not just anchored to a specific date, but rather a desire to make progress in making more sustainable products every year. The Plants from Plants initiative which was just announced is one of the first big steps on this journey.
Let’s take a closer look at how The LEGO Group plans to shift three of their most common plastics to sustainable alternatives: Polyethylene, ABS, and Polycarbonate…
Plant-based Polyethylene parts
The first parts which are being switched to sustainable plastics are those flexible parts made out of Polyethylene. This conveniently includes a number of LEGO plants such as trees, shrubs and leaves.
This was the easiest plastic to replace with a sustainable alternative, as plant-based polyethylene is commercially available. Even though it is produced using plants, they assured us that it is chemically identical to polyethylene produced from fossil fuels. They can produce “plants from plants” with their existing molds, and can use the same colorant.
This plant-based polyethylene material is derived from sugarcane which was harvested in a sustainably-managed farm in Brazil. It is at least twice as expensive as conventional polyethylene, but this is an investment they are willing to make at this time. I expressed my concerns that dedicating farmland, pesticides and fertilizers to the manufacture of plastic is not necessarily better than using fossil fuels, but they assured me that it has a lower overall environmental impact. More importantly, it represents a first step in a longer journey.
We had an opportunity to compare a variety of Plant-based Polyethylene parts against their conventional alternatives, and I am pleased to report that they look and feel identical. This makes sense since it should identical at a molecular level even if it was produced differently. You will be able to see them soon, too—the ‘Plants from Plants’ set will be free with purchase in several countries starting August 1, and Plant-based polyethylene parts will slowly replace conventionally-produced parts throughout the rest of the year.
ABS alternatives for opaque bricks
We had an opportunity to compare their latest prototypes of 2×4 bricks made with sustainable products against their existing ABS bricks. The prototype material was described as a mix of 2nd generation bioplastics originally designed for plastic bags with recycled plastics.
Unlike the new plant-based polyethylene parts which are made from consumer-grade sugarcane, these second-generation bioplastics are created from agricultural waste. This has the potential to offer significantly greater ecological benefits, since it doesn’t divert farmlands from normal agricultural production.
The sample bricks were made with a milky semi-transparent white material, which they explained is an uncolored plastic. They feel good in the hand, and the clutch power felt comparable to the existing ABS material. It created a different subtle squeak sound as you attached two bricks and they snap together more smoothly than traditional bricks. It feels a little different, but also felt like a quality plastic material.
Polycarbonate alternatives for transparent bricks
We also had a chance to see current progress in replacing transparent LEGO bricks with a plastic derived from wood pulp. They explained that the wood pulp is FSC certified for minimal environmental impact.
The samples aren’t quite clear enough yet, and the clutch power felt too strong, even as compared to the existing polycarbonate plastic which is more difficult to separate than ABS.
#40320 ‘Plants from Plants’ promotional set
Replacing only one lesser-used plastic with a plant-based alternative is a small step for LEGO, but it is still exciting. To celebrate this occasion, a promotional set called ‘Plants from Plants’ will be free with purchase in several countries starting in August.
The set includes 29 LEGO plant elements manufactured using the new plant-based polyethelene. The complete press release is included below the fold.
“Lucky LEGO builders in the US, Canada, UK and Germany will be the first to play with the brand-new LEGO elements made from plants.
The new plant-based elements are drawn from the botanical range of LEGO elements – including trees, leaves and bushes- and are made from a plastic produced using sustainably sourced sugarcane, plants from plants!
A free, exclusive, LEGO Plants from Plants (40320) box will be given to consumers who make a purchase of over $35/£35/€35 in LEGO Brand Retail stores and at shop.lego.com between 1st to 17th August in UK and Germany and between 1st to 14th August in US and Canada.
To celebrate the arrival of the first plant-based elements the LEGO Group invites builders around the world to join us building their own sustainability superheroes.
During August the LEGO Group will hold creative building challenges in our New York, and Berlin LEGO Brand Retail stores, as well as a special event in London at the Natural History Museum. Building challenges will also be held online at LEGO.com and LEGO Life. LEGO builders will be challenged to combine the botanical elements with LEGO bricks they have at home, build their own sustainable superheroes and share these online at http://LEGO.com/plantsfromplants.
The new plant-based LEGO elements will begin appearing in LEGO boxes throughout 2018.
The botanical LEGO elements are available for the first time in brilliant lime green colour, as well as the classic LEGO green. The elements are compatible with the first ever LEGO bricks made 60 years ago and are an example of the LEGO Group’s continued commitment to innovation while staying true to the quality, play experience and durability that is at the heart of the LEGO system.
The plastic used to make the elements is polyethylene, a soft, durable and flexible plastic made from sustainably sourced sugarcane, in accordance with guidance from the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA) and third party certified global standards. The new elements are technically identical to existing LEGO botanical elements and have been tested to ensure the sustainably sourced plant-based plastic meets the high standards for quality and safety that the LEGO Group has, and consumers expect from LEGO products.”