Last year, Lego announced it will spend at least 135 million euro’s for research directed at renewable materials for its toys and packaging. The Danish toy giant, with a turn over of 4,8 billion euro’s (2015), is one of the biggest players in the sector, which turns over 160 billion per year (source: Euromonitor, 2015). The above decision of Lego is mainly fuelled by environmental concerns. ‘It is our ambition to use100 per cent sustainable materials in 2030’, CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp has said. ‘We have already taken steps in the field of renewable energy (wind farms to power production, ed.) and FSC-certified packaging materials. Now it is time to focus on the materials for our products.’
Currently, Lego produces its base material, the world famous Lego-blocks, from ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). Each year, the company manufactures roughly 20 billion pieces. ABS is 100 per cent fossil, but the material has its advantages. Lego tolerates only minimal deviations (up until 0,002 millimetre), which ensures a seamless fit with the other blocks. This is not only the case with “modern” blocks, but also with the older ones, up until the “generation” of 1958.
ABS also has relative high creep resistance, making it less susceptible to deformation as a result of pulling and/or bending. ABS is relatively light-weight, but hard and with a high impact-resistance. Last but no least, ABS is relatively cheap.
‘Out Lego-blocks are made of the highest quality plastics’, a spokesman says to Agro&Chemistry. ‘The functional properties and lifespan are good. However, there’s a downside: the material is fossil-based and therefore based on scarce feedstocks. We believe we can perform better with renewable materials that have a lower environmental footprint.’
Recycling no option
The question is: which types of renewable plastics are in Lego’s sight? For the time being, the company does not want to disclose anything. What’s clear is that Lego, in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund, has determined criteria based on which it can determine the “sustainability factor” of each material.
‘We are at the beginning of our journey’, the spokesman for Lego says. ‘There are several challenges: the materials have to be more sustainable and should be comparable in terms of functionalities and user safety.’
It remains to be seen whether Lego will end up with a 100 per cent renewable solution. ‘We will look into several blends in which bioplastics/polymers can come into play.’
In an article. published in Wired (2015), it appears that Lego has already tested with an “impact-modified” PLA. In this test, the material initially resembled ABS very closely. However, after a number of weeks the material started to deform, the author of the article states. In short, it won’t be an easy fix, hence Lego’s timeline (2030).
Recycling (of fossil plastics) is not an option for Lego – or any manufacturer for that matter – because of strict regulation in this sector. Re-use, however, is definitely an option: there are several websites where consumers are able to buy and sell second-hand Lego-materials.
Bioserie: made of plants
Lego mostly is interested in the environmental aspects of its (future) materials. There are also companies that position their products as “child-friendly” alternatives for fossil plastics, more specific certain additives such as plasticizers.
One of these companies is Bioserie which launched the first generation “Made of Plants” for toddlers. Bioserie, with its head office in Hong Kong, has put in three years of R&D into the concept, which is based on Ingeo (NatureWork) and a “proprietary blend of biobased components”.
According to Bioserie, its toys do not contain any potential toxic elements which can be present in fossil-based toys. ‘Most of the toys for babies and toddlers are based on fossil plastics’, Stephanie Trau, one of the founders of Bioserie, says. ‘It is for parents very difficult to assess whether these toys contain harmful components such as heavy metals, phthalates or Bisfenol A. The information on the packaging often is inadequate or too technical for the average consumer. With our products consumers will get the guarantee that these components will not be present.’
As mentioned before, Lego still has to figure out which materials it will use. Italeri, the Italian manufacturer of model cars, planes, tanks et cetera, already made a choice. Together with Bio-on, it will use a PHA-blend for certain models. In the so-called Minerv PHA Supertoys Project both companies want to develop “environmental-friendly” models with the same functionalities (esthetics et cetera) as current products. From the Supertoys-project, two types of PHA-blend should emerge: a type R (rigid, strong) and a type F (soft, flexible). At the end of 2017 these plastics are scheduled to enter the market.
‘Our models are very difficult to produce’, Marco Astorri, CEO of Italeri says. ‘Tolerance levels are minimal but if we succeed, other items in the toy sector will be suitable for these kind of materials.’
Until 1963 Lego produced its world famous blocks from cellulose acetate. After that, ABS came into the picture, a more stable plastic which has been in use for more than 50 years. It also illustrates that the bar is set high for any plastic (blend) that would replace ABS.
One option is an alternative plastic blend, the other a biobased copy of ABS. There are several initiatives which target biobased butadiene, for example ENI and Novamont of Lanzatech/Invista. The route towards biobased biobenzene is being explored by Anellotech and several companies and knowledge institutes are investigating biobased drop-in’s, for example glutamic acid, for acrylonitrile.
The choice of materials is an important element in Lego’s journey to 2030. Most of its parts are based on ABS. There are also other materials which are in use, such as metals. For example, the chassis of Duplo has metal axes. These have been omitted by an alternative design which allows the wheels to be clicked directly into the chassis. This design not only lowers production costs, Lego says, it also lowers the overall impact on the environment.
Geobra Brandstätter, the manufacturer of Playmobil, is still experimenting with plastics based on renewable feedstocks, a spokesman for the German family-business says. Geobra already has put its toe into the water by designing a biobased Panda-shaped key ring for the German division of the World Wildlife Fund. ‘It will be very difficult to replace all fossil-based plastics with renewable materials in our Playmobil-portfolio. This has to do with the required functionalities.’