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LEGO ditches oil-free brick in sustainability *win* (not setback)

"LEGO ditches oil-free brick in sustainability setback," goes the Financial Times headline from September 24th. I disagree. And in case you're confused about what's going on, let me help!

It was an act of visionary leadership for LEGO, in 2015, to set itself a target of 100% sustainable materials by 2030. LEGO is currently made mainly from a virgin petroleum-based plastic called ABS. Making plastic from petroleum emits lots of climate-chaos-causing CO2. In fact, to absorb the CO2 emitted making LEGO in 2021, we'd have to plant 70 million trees - put another way, LEGO's use of virgin petro-plastic affects our climate as much as deforesting 70 million trees.*

At that time, recycled or bio-based versions of the main LEGO plastic ABS didn't really exist yet - certainly not in the huge quantities LEGO would need. So LEGO went looking for a different material - one that:

  • Was abundantly available
  • Was recycled or bio-based
  • 'Worked', i.e., that made LEGO bricks as durable, and that click-together as firmly, as ABS.

They settled on recycled PET (rPET - made from used drinks bottles), and spent years experimenting with additives, and processes, to make it behave like ABS. And this week they announced, that failed. They cannot get rPET to behave like ABS.

There is one other major flaw in the rPET strategy: it's not circular. Soft drinks bottles in the supermarket now boast 100% recycled bottles - made from used bottles. The best way to keep packaging food-safe, and avoid contamination by poisons from other materials, is "closed-loop recycling" - drinks bottles recycled into drinks bottles recycled into drinks bottles. Other than 'topping-up' the quantity with some virgin PET, nothing else comes in, and nothing goes out.

If you start diverting the recycled drinks bottles material to make toys and other products, you break the closed loop, and force the drinks industry to use more virgin PET. So LEGO's choice of rPET was not without controversy.

But in the 8 years since 2015, recycling technology has developed in leaps and bounds, and recycling companies and plastic-producing companies have started working on their own sustainability goals. In 2021, a waste company (Indaver) and a plastics producer (INEOS) jointly announced the first recycled ABS.

And bioplastics have come along also. In 2022, Trinseo announced a bio-based ABS.

It is a much better solution that LEGO be made from recycled or bio-based ABS. Because they're still ABS. My favourite analogy is FairTrade coffee - it's not a different substance, it's still coffee - just from a sustainable/ethical source. Recycled or bio-based ABS will be easier to make behave like virgin ABS.

And using recycled ABS opens the possibility that one day LEGO will introduce closed-loop recycling for its own products. Only when they're unusably worn or damaged, of course; the best destination for used-but-still-playable LEGO is, of course, another child.

Right now we can rehome used LEGO ourselves - via friends and family, selling online, Freecycling, donating to charity - or in the US and UK, via LEGO's RePlay take-back programme that donates used bricks to charity. Or we can use BrickIt app to re-ignite interest in the child who owns the bricks - take a photo of the bricks you have and get 100s of step-by-step instructions for builds you can make with them!

And LEGO is the only big toy maker I know of who has found a way to earn at least some of its revenue from rehoming preloved bricks: it acquired LEGO resale site BrickLink in 2019. (I got a specific set my daughter was asking for pre-loved on BrickLink a few years age, as a birthday gift from her aunt and grandparents. The carbon footprint of shipping from the seller in the Netherlands was a tiny fraction of the footprint of making that same set new.)

If I were LEGO, I'd also acquire BrickIt and incorporate it into a machine that accepts, washes, and sorts used bricks into bagged sets with instructions - like new, just without the carbon footprint.

I look forward to stocking sustainable LEGO sets, once they're available, if they'll let me! Meanwhile we can offer BiOBUDDi - sets for younger kids compatible with LEGO Duplo, and for older kids compatible with "little LEGO" - all bio-PE, made from plants - the waste leftover after sugarcane is harvested - making them renewable and carbon-neutral.

To be transparent, the Duplo-compatible BiOBUDDi works just like Duplo, you wouldn't notice any difference. The "little LEGO" compatible BiOBUDDi doesn't have the same 'clutch strength' LEGO is obsessed with - the bricks don't hold together as well as LEGO. But the sets are small so it's less of a big deal - they still work - and if mixed-in with LEGO the child already has for bigger builds, the effect will be diluted.

Relevant facts about LEGO:

  • LEGO is the world's biggest maker of physical toys (second-biggest if we include makers of video games)
  • Unlike Hasbro or Mattel which are shareholder-owned, LEGO is still owned by the family of its inventor, Ole Kirk Christiansen
  • Among the world's larger toy makers, LEGO has taken a strong lead on sustainability, starting by trying bio-polyethylene for its plant pieces as early as 2018 ("Plants from Plants")

* Calculation and sources:

  • 1 tree can absorb 22 kg of CO2 per year (source: Carbonify)
  • LEGO's latest carbon footprint was 1,530,396 tonnes of CO2 = 1.5 billion kg CO2 (source: LEGO, see here)
  • 1.5 billion / 22 = 70 million

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