If Legos were a cherished part of your childhood, you’re not alone: The Danish company sells about 70 billion bricks per year (and as of 2015 had made enough pieces for everyone on the planet to own 102 of them). It’s not all fun and games for Mother Earth, though, as the production and supply chain of these non-biodegradable toys produces more than a million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
The company is attempting to mitigate its environmental impact through a number
of initiatives, however, such as finding sustainable plastics for its products and packaging. In fact, the Lego Group’s goal is to replace all petroleum-based plastics in its bricks with recycled or plant-based materials by 2030. Nelleke van der Puil, the company’s vice president for materials, is helping lead this process. Among her successes is a $200 treehouse set (pictured right) with leaves made from sugarcane-based bio polyethylene (Bio-PE)—a material that now accounts for 2 percent of all Lego pieces. Here, she tells us about her search for materials for the other 98 percent.
In Lego’s view, what qualifies as a sustainable material?
There’s no one real definition, but as we see it, it is a material from a source that is renewable. It can be a plant or a tree, or it can be an existing, used plastic that in principle could be converted to new plastic that is safe. The production of the plastic should not generate more CO2 than with the plastics of today.
How do you test new prospective materials?
We have a good network with universities, where we can look at the basic properties of materials, like durability. In our labs, we test candidate materials for functionality and play [value]. Is it sturdy enough? Does it clutch after so many months? Does it hold color in the right way? How does it behave in the molding process? Then we look at what is the best way to produce these materials.
Kids are liable to put toys in their mouths—so apparently one thing you test is how materials react to saliva?
We expose [materials] to a mixture of chemicals that comes close to representing saliva composition. It’s not that somebody’s drooling over it [laughs].
What knowledge do these experiments lead to?
If you look at what we’ve done with the Bio-PE, we’ve created interesting new sets with a very good story about sustainability. The treehouse that we just launched inspires our designers to work with materials and make that link to sustainability and make people more aware.
How far are you from finding an alternative material for Lego bricks?
We announced that by 2030 we would use sustainable materials in [all] our products. I think we’re still on track to get there. On the other hand, we see this as an adaptive challenge—there might be other options that might turn out to be more attractive at a later point. We keep our eyes open to new things that are developing in the plastics industry.
How does looking for sustainable materials benefit Lego’s bottom line?
If I look at it from the engineering perspective, we learn a lot about what we’re doing in production and how materials interact with the production environment. I think that is actually helping us to create new and exciting products in a more efficient way. So we grow our knowledge base.
Solar panels the company installed at its campus in Billund, Denmark, in 2018
Percentage of plastic waste from the molding of Lego bricks that gets recycled
Year by which the company plans to use all sustainable materials in its packaging
Year by which the company plans to use all sustainable materials in its products
Amount of waste the company hopes to be sending to landfills by 2025
Percentage the company improved its carbon efficiency from 2017 to 2018