By the Num­bers

EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL WRITER AN­DREW REEVES WEIGHS IN ON LEGO’S BIO­PLAS­TIC FOR­EST

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Lego’s two-per-cent green so­lu­tion

My LEGO was kept in a grey bin shaped like a gi­ant 2x2 round brick. I dumped pieces on my bed­room floor and man­gled the colour­ful plas­tic pieces into fly­ing cars, ca­noes, cas­tles. But land­scapes were al­ways my favourite. In a box brim­ming with cubes, rec­tan­gles and cylin­ders, the oddly shaped shrubs were...dif­fer­ent. Dif­fer­ent they re­main. Just 2 years af­ter es­tab­lish­ing its Sus­tain­able Ma­te­ri­als Cen­tre to in­ves­ti­gate eth­i­cally sourced green ma­te­ri­als, Lego has un­veiled “new” botan­i­cal el­e­ments – in­stantly rec­og­niz­able leaves, bushes and trees whose chem­i­cal foun­da­tions rep­re­sent a rad­i­cal de­par­ture for the Dan­ish brand. Plant-based poly­eth­yl­ene sourced from sug­ar­cane will be used to make about 2 per cent of all Lego parts be­fore the year’s end. It sounds sta­tis­ti­cally minis­cule, but scale is cru­cial. That 2 per cent is big news when the com­pany sells 75 bil­lion mo­d­ules (in 3,700 or so shapes) ev­ery year. About 20 dif­fer­ent plas­tics are used to man­u­fac­ture the brand’s in­fa­mously durable parts; up to 80 per cent are made from ABS, a plas­tic that could prove es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing to re­place. Bio­plas­tics are key to Lego’s sus­tain­able shift, though not just any new ma­te­rial can re­place the sharp-edged plas­tic loved by ar­chi­tects young and old – clutch power, colour fast­ness, dura­bil­ity and strength must all be repli­cated to an ex­act­ing de­gree. No easy feat. De­spite the fan­fare, th­ese “sus­tain­able” toys have ques­tion­able en­vi­ron­men­tal bona fides. Plant-based ethanol has a lower car­bon foot­print than tra­di­tional plas­tics, sure, but sugar-cane farm­ing is of­ten ex­ploita­tive of forests and labour alike. Th­ese first gen­er­a­tion shrubs et al. won’t even biode­grade. I ap­pre­ci­ate the im­por­tance Lego puts on reusing their in­fa­mously durable parts – to­day, few plas­tic toys are built to last. Yet rather than re­plac­ing one plas­tic with another, a more revo­lu­tion­ary ap­proach would be cre­at­ing a prod­uct that, as chil­dren grow up, is bro­ken down by the earth. Noth­ing lasts for­ever – not even Lego. Still, this step is a sig­nif­i­cant one on a long path to prod­uct and pack­ag­ing sus­tain­abil­ity, which Lego aims to achieve by 2030. In a world awash in mi­croplas­tics, a re­spected global brand sewing sus­tain­abil­ity into the fab­ric of its de­sign – all while re­duc­ing its plan­e­tary im­pact – is wel­come news. Think­ing oth­er­wise risks miss­ing the for­est for the trees.

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