Lego, the Danish toy company famous for its plastic bricks, has started making the botanical elements—such as leaves, bushes, and trees—in its kits from polyethylene derived from sugar cane.
The move is a first step in a plan the company announced in 2015 to reduce its impact on the environment by phasing out fossil fuel-derived plastic. It doesn’t affect Lego’s iconic bricks, which are still made from acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), a copolymer of three petrochemicals.
The Brazilian firm Braskem, which has a process for converting ethanol from sugar cane into ethylene, the precursor for polyethylene, is Lego’s supplier. The sugar will be certified as responsibly sourced by Bonsucro, a sustainable sugar organization. According to Braskem, each ton of biopolyethylene it makes consumes 3.09 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Initially, Lego will make only the botanical elements, or 1–2% of its plastic parts, using the biopolyethylene. “We are proud that the first Lego elements made from sustainably sourced plastic are in production and will be in Lego boxes this year,” says Tim Brooks, the firm’s vice president for environmental responsibility.
Lego isn’t saying whether it will also use biopolyethylene to make the firm’s iconic blocks or its packaging. Finding the right material for the blocks presents a particular challenge. In 2012, Styrolution, an ABS supplier to Lego, told C&EN that the raw material has to be made to an exact specification so that the blocks lock together and then come apart with just the right amount of force. Polyethylene, which isn’t as tough as ABS, may not be up for the job.
In 2014, Lego used 77,000 metric tons of raw materials to create more than 60 billion pieces. Braskem has capacity to produce 180,000 metric tons per year of biopolyethylene at its plant in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.
In announcing the initiative, Lego said it would spend $150 million and hire more than 100 staffers to research and develop sustainable raw materials to replace petrochemical-based polymers by 2030.
Lego has been working with the World Wildlife Fund and the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance on the project. “The Lego Group’s decision to pursue sustainably sourced biobased plastics represents an incredible opportunity to reduce dependence on finite resources,” says Alix Grabowski, a senior program officer at WWF.