There are few things in this world that can be more closely connected to the memory of childhood than LEGO. Of course, it’s not only children that get in on the fun but adults too. It’s quite simply one of those things that are enjoyed by all and as far as toys go, is seemingly irreplaceable. But perhaps it’s the fact that LEGO bricks are irreplaceable that makes them a problem.
You’ve probably guessed it already, but LEGO bricks are made entirely out of plastic. Although, not all of the same type. No, there are actually 20 different types of plastic used for the over 3,700 different pieces. Out of these 20, there is one in particular that constituents 80% of all LEGO bricks and that is ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene).
ABS is a very special type of plastic in that it’s perfectly suited for the making of LEGO bricks. Its exceedingly long name is attributed to the three monomers which form it: acrylonitrile, 1,3-butadiene, and styrene.
These three compounds combine together to give LEGO bricks the qualities that they are renowned worldwide for; the strength, the durability, the gloss, the resistance to colour fading, and most importantly, the ability to inflict tremendous amounts of pain whenever we accidentally step on them.
But while ABS has given 4-99-year-olds worldwide one of the most popular and beloved toys of all time, it is not particularly good for the environment. All three monomers are petroleum-based and ABS is non-biodegradable.
Now, non-biodegradable substances tend to be a big “no-no” for environmentalists because once the product has been used, it tends to be dumped in a giant landfill where it sits around for decades, taking up precious land and polluting the environment. In fact, a study found that a typical LEGO brick can last as much as 1,300 years in the ocean.
However, this is where the LEGO Group likes to remind customers and critics that their product doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of “single-use plastics”; you can never be “done with” a LEGO brick. Instead, you can use them over and over again, for a seemingly perpetual amount of time. In fact, thanks to their durability and ability to retain colour, LEGO bricks produced today fit perfectly well with the bricks that you may have bought years or even decades ago.
According to the company, approximately 96% of LEGO bricks are either kept by their customers or are passed on. They even launched LEGO Replay, a campaign to encourage customers to donate their bricks to children after they’re done using them instead of throwing them away.
But while that may sound well and good, it should be added that every year, around 20 billion LEGO bricks are manufactured. Even if 96% are kept/passed on, that still leaves 800 million pieces that are being thrown away. That’s a lot of plastic.
Of course, the question now is, why doesn’t the company simply replace ABS with a more environmentally-friendly substance? The simple answer: there is nothing that can replace ABS. ABS is too perfect. It gives LEGO bricks all the qualities that we love so much about them and no other plastic can match it.
One of the qualities of LEGO bricks that the company takes immense pride in - and what makes the bricks so enjoyable - is their “clutch power”. That is, their ability to fit together perfectly and then be separated. There’s simply no plastic that exists in the world that can replicate that quality.
Now, to the company’s credit, it hasn’t taken that as an excuse to not find replacements. Back in 2015, the company invested $155 million into their Sustainable Materials Center which put over 100 engineers and material experts to the task of finding a suitable replacement for ABS. The company has promised that by 2030, its products will be made from 100% sustainable material.
The company is taking other steps, too. In 2018, the company started using sugarcane-based polyethylene to produce 25 different LEGO pieces, mainly their plant pieces. These 25 pieces are “stand-alone” pieces i.e. they are not like the bricks which need to be fitted together. These 25 pieces don’t need the “clutch power” quality that ABS gives and as such, they can be made by the softer biopolyethylene. The supplier is Braskem, a Brazilian firm, and the sugar is certified as responsibly sourced by Bonsucro - a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainable sugarcane production. In fact, according to Braskem, every ton of polyethylene they produce sucks 3.09 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Now, these 25 LEGO pieces do only makeup 2% of the total number of LEGO elements produced each year. However, just like the 4% that gets thrown out, 2% is a big number. It may not be everything, but it’s a step forward in the right direction.
Apart from that, the company is looking to replace the plastic bags used to package their bricks with paper bags. These new bags will be fully recyclable and will be made of paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. They plan to roll out these new paper bags sometime this year.
Additionally, 75% of the cardboard used in their boxes comes from recycled material and all the cardboard used in their products and packaging is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. In an effort to promote responsible recycling, LEGO began labelling boxes made in the US and Canada with the How2Recycle® label. The label
So this is how LEGO bricks are made, as described by the company on its website:
Trucks filled with plastic granules deliver their loads to the factories. At the factory, giant hoses inhale the granules and deposit them into metal silos that are three-stories high. There are 14 silos in a factory and each one holds 33 tons of granules. The granules are then passed through pipes into what is known as the molding machines. In these molding machines, the heat is cranked up to approximately 450 degrees Fahrenheit (or 230°C). The granules melt and the molten goo is then poured into tiny metal containers which are shaped like the LEGO pieces. Hundreds of tons of pressure is applied to force the bricks into exactly the correct shape, after which they are cooled. The pieces are then dumped onto a conveyor belt. The pieces are decorated and the mini-figures are assembled. Once this is done, the pieces are arranged into their respective sets and are then packaged and boxed and are finally ready for shipping.
The entire process is almost completely automated and is assisted by robots that handle the pieces with incredible precision. As you may have suspected, it’s all quite energy-intensive.
Thankfully, the company is balanced by 100% renewable energy. This means that the energy used on location is balanced out by renewable energy sources owned by the company, either on or off-site. This is largely thanks to investments made by LEGO’s parent organisation, KIRKBI, in offshore wind in Germany and the UK. In 2019, the LEGO Group used an estimated 350 GWh of energy but their on and off-site energy sources returned 400 GWh.
The company aims to receive the “100% Renewable” certificate by RE100 by the end of 2022. This certificate is achieved once a company has renewable energy in every continent in which it operates. LEGO is working towards that certificate by investing in offsite renewable energy sources in Asia and the Americas.
There are also LEGO’s carbon emissions to account for but the company is working on that too. Last year they saved 1,300 tonnes of CO2 emissions by replacing all of their lightbulbs in their factory in Mexico with LED lightbulbs. They installed solar panels atop of their factory in Kladno, Czech Republic which will save another 500 tonnes of CO2 annually. The company also implemented a new cooling system in their Danish factory which will reduce CO2 emissions by 111 tonnes annually. Moreover, the company runs its Engage-to-Reduce program that works towards reducing their suppliers’ carbon emissions, water usage, and forestry impacts.
Of course, there is still more work that needs to be done and the LEGO Group understands this. In December of last year, the company announced that it would be committing to a 37% reduction in its absolute carbon emissions by 2032. This target is in line with the 2016 Paris Agreement and was approved by the Science Based Target initiative. All of this is in the hopes that the company will one day achieve carbon neutrality.
The LEGO Group is also working on its waste. As of 2019, 91% of its waste is recycled. This includes 100% of the plastic from its molding machines. The company’s ultimate goal is that by 2025, it hopes to have zero waste reaching landfills. It’s a great initiative, one that exhibits the LEGO Group’s willingness to work towards a more sustainable supply chain.
In 1932, the Kirk Kristiansen family founded the LEGO Group in the small town of Billund, Denmark. What started off as a small carpentry workshop grew into the main office of what is now one of the biggest toy producers in the world. Today, LEGO bricks are sold in over 130 countries and have been played with by over 300 million children.
What is great is that a company as big as the LEGO Group is keenly aware of its impact on the world and is taking steps towards becoming more responsible and sustainable.
In 2014, the LEGO Group joined WWF’s Climate Savers Programme which aims to change companies’ approaches to climate change. Under this initiative, the company has taken several steps towards reducing its CO2 emissions and waste. In August of 2020, the company joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with an aim to become a more circular business and help promote a circular economy.
Aside from environmental sustainability, the company has exhibited its sense of social responsibility. One of the philosophies of the company is to “put children first”. Last year, when COVID-19 hit, the LEGO Foundation made several financial donations to Learning Through Play initiatives.
The company also launched its LEGO Braille Bricks for children with impaired vision and is looking to extend its reach to 20 different countries. Apart from that, the company has donated tens of millions of dollars to charities all over the world to help support children in need.
Gender diversity also seems to be on the LEGO checklist. In 2019, 43% of positions at the manager level and above were women. By 2020, that figure had increased to 46%.
The company also has its 12 Responsible Business Principles which all of its suppliers and partners must follow. These 12 principles lay down the company’s standards for ethical and transparent practices, worker rights, family and child safety, and environmental sustainability.
It’s a long list of achievements, all done in a day’s work. However, that does not mean that the company’s tracklist has been perfect.
In 2011, Greenpeace called out LEGO for sourcing its packaging material from trees that had been cleared out in the Indonesian rainforests. LEGO's supplier, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), was the culprit and after some intense media pressure, the company dropped APP and shifted to paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Greenpeace also came after LEGO for its partnership with Royal Dutch Shell, an oil company and a major world polluter. At first, LEGO resisted and responded by saying that Greenpeace should deal with Shell directly. However, after an online petition launched by Greenpeace reached 750,000 signatures, LEGO finally gave in and promised to not renew its contract with Shell after it had expired (although it hasn’t been specified when that is).
So yes, a few bumps in the road but what’s great to see is that LEGO is making the effort to change (even if it does require a few nudges every now and then from the media and Greenpeace).