Sustainable Design

Navigating the Challenges of Sustainability: LEGO Abandons Plan for Sustainable Bricks

September 27, 2023

In the eco conscious world of today, the quest for sustainability is becoming a priority for companies across all industries. Motivation behind this drive for sustainability varies company to company. But whether it’s driven by ethical concerns, customer desires, or by regulation pressures, the path towards a more sustainable organization is not always straight. Lego’s recent decision to ditch their goal of making their bricks from recycled plastic bottles is a key example that highlights the unforeseen challenges companies can encounter when trying to adopt sustainable practices. In this blog we will delve into the obstacles that business can run into on their quest towards creating a more sustainable organization.

LEGO produces about 100,000 tonnes of plastic each year as a result of creating the classic bricks that we all know and love. These 100,000 tonnes are turned into roughly 110 billion bricks, 80% of which are made from acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS). ABS is a petroleum-based plastic with properties ideal for LEGO, its high strength and rigidity, make it perfect for repeated use and supporting the structures you make. The problem though, ABS is not a plastic known for its recyclability, as it loses those properties that its prized for. It’s also these properties that are responsible for its inability to breakdown, meaning once it’s made, it sticks around for a very long time.

Lego's sustainable bricks prototype

LEGO recognized the ecological problem their bricks were contributing too and so in 2015 announced their ambitious plan to put $155 million into a new sustainable materials centre. They had the goal of removing all petroleum-based plastics from their inventory by 2030. They started out with some success, swapping the oil-based polyethylene used in different pieces such as trees and bushes for a plant-based version of the same plastic. They have also nearly eliminated all the single use plastic bags in their packaging, opting for paper containers instead.

The main goal though, the one with the largest impact was to develop more sustainable bricks, replacing the traditional ABS with recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET). This was welcomed with open arms by eco conscious people and parents alike, it seemed like a big leap for combating the plastic waste on our planet. However, despite LEGO’s noble attempt, they have announced the abandonment of their sustainable plan. Saying that making the bricks from recycled plastic bottles would actually have a higher carbon footprint over the products lifetime. The new, non-oil-based material is softer than ABS and requires extra ingredients to be added to gain the required properties, as well as needing more energy for processing and drying. For LEGO to process the RPET they would need to change everything in their factories, which they claim would have a higher carbon footprint than if they continued to use ABS.

While this is a disappointing setback for LEGO they are saying that they remain committed to becoming more sustainable, now looking to find alternate solutions. One of which is finding bio-based and recycled substitutes for the individual chemicals in ABS. LEGO’s CEO, Niels Christiansen says they will be focusing on incremental emissions reduction as well as developing a take-back scheme over the coming years allowing unwanted bricks to be re-used.

So, what are the common obstacles in the way of achieving sustainability?

Technical and Scientific Challenges

Companies looking to adopt more sustainable practices often encounter major technical and scientific challenges. Moving to use eco-friendly materials or processes often means going into the unknown and requires extensive research and development. Finding sustainable materials and processes that replicate the properties, performance, and durability of the traditional counterparts is not straight forward. The complexities surrounding integrating sustainable technology into existing systems, supply chains and manufacture processes requires real expertise and innovation. As can be seen with LEGO, replicating the specific properties of their traditional ABS with a sustainable alternative turned out impossible. Creating bricks that stayed together when built but were still possible to pull apart requires tolerances of about one to two microns. This was one of the major issues with their sustainable alternative and claimed their prototype bricks either simply did not hold or they required pliers to pull them apart.

Cost Implications

Sustainability ventures can be expensive. Adopting sustainable materials, processes, or technologies may be driven by long-term environmental and ethical considerations but often come with upfront production costs that can put a strain on the company. Whether it’s the cost of the research and development that goes into finding more sustainable approaches or it’s the cost of having to change their machines and processes in their factories. It’s a short-term financial impact that can affect product pricing and profitability. As with LEGO, they must have weighed the cost implications against the potential long-term benefits of having sustainable bricks. Despite them later abandoning their plan, they have already invested a great deal of money into the project and will continue to pursue other avenues for sustainability.

Consumer Expectations

Consumer expectations are an important aspect in a companies’ sustainability quest. While the demand for sustainable products is growing, the challenge is for companies to meet these demands without compromising on the quality and price of their products. For LEGO, their reputation for quality has created high consumer expectations for interlocking bricks that can be used over and over. Introducing a sustainable brick made from recycled plastic bottles, that matched the iconic interlocking precision and high quality of the original ABS bricks unfortunately was not possible.

Competitive Pressures

Markets can be very competitive and for companies, gaining an edge over competitors can be crucial. This can make embracing sustainable approaches daunting, whether its due to the risk of something going wrong and impacting the company or the risk that competitors do not follow suit and they become at a disadvantage. The fear of being at a competitive disadvantage can hold some companies back from making the leap. This is however a problem that is becoming less prominent as more and more companies understand the importance of sustainability.

Supply Chain Complexity

The challenge of companies making their operation more sustainable is not just with the products they sell but also the materials they source, the transportation, the distribution and waste management. The bigger the company, often the more complex the supply chain. As supply chains become more complex, making changes becomes harder and introduces more risk of failure. Companies like LEGO, a global brand, face a highly complex task of effectively implementing sustainable practices into their supply chain.

While LEGO’s decision to scrap its goal of producing more sustainable bricks from recycled plastic bottles may feel like a setback for the company and its ecofriendly consumers it does serve as a reminder of the complexities companies face with adopting sustainable approaches. Despite the challenges and complexities, LEGO, and many others still have a drive for sustainability, continuing to explore novel ways of reducing their environmental impact. Companies are increasingly embarking on their quest for sustainability and though they may be faced with challenges, they understand it is worth the risk for the benefit to our planet.

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