LEGO's plastic superheroes, astronauts, knights, and ninjas are, like most such materials, primarily made from oil. Legos have been made this way for nearly 70 years. But the toy company now wants to wean itself from petroleum and produce its famous toys with plants instead — specifically tropically-grown sugarcane.
On Thursday, the company announced it will begin producing its softer LEGOs — like its little trees and bushes — from sugarcane-sourced plastics.
"It sounds high-falutin, but it's our belief that we owe it to children not to damage their planet by making their favorite toy," said Tim Brooks, LEGO's vice president of environmental responsibility and sustainable materials Center, in an interview.
LEGO has started purchasing sugarcane from Brazil — but Brooks said the company ensured it's being grown on agricultural land, "so we’re not chopping down rainforest to grow the crop." The sugarcane sourcing also got a thumbs up from the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, which provides guidance on sustainably grown sugarcane.
Lego's polyethylene 'botanicals' like trees, bushes and leaves.
LEGO is using sugarcane to produce a specific, softer type of plastic, called polyethylene, for its plants and bushes. By the end of 2018, Brooks said that any LEGO box you buy will have sugarcane-sourced LEGO "botanicals."
Brooks recognizes that this is just a start, as polyethylene is only used in one to two percent of LEGO's total products. Most LEGOs — the famous blocks — use ABS plastics, which are hard, durable, and oil-based.
But LEGO hopes to make most of its "core products" from more sustainable sources, like plants, by 2030.
Stephen Mayfield, a molecular biologist at UC San Diego and director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, said the company's move is a step in the right direction. "You’ll find haters, but it's way better than petroleum — so these people should be applauded for doing this," Mayfield said of sugarcane-based plastics. He has no affiliation with LEGO.
Switching from oil-based to plant-based plastics dramatically cuts the carbon footprint of a product by around 70 percent, Mayfield said.
"The more we can go to biological sources, the better it is," he said.
Additionally, Brazilian sugarcane is often boiled and processed using leftover plant matter — as opposed to using fossil fuels (like in the United States) to separate the plastic materials — said Mayfield.
"The carbon footprint on that is pretty dang good," he said.
An example of how LEGO has reduced the size of its boxes.
LEGO is not new to environmental initiatives. Like many toys, LEGOs traditionally came in big boxes — boxes containing lots of air, not LEGOs. The company has started shrinking its cardboard boxing, which Brooks said "takes 4,000 trucks off the road every year" as more boxes can now be transported at once.
Beginning to use plant-based products will certainly help the company achieve its sustainability goals, though LEGO is just doing their part in a global economy still dominated by fossil fuels — finite resources that are the primary contributor to human-caused climate change.
"It’s not the final solution," said Mayfield. "But if we wait for the final solution we’ll never do anything."