LEGO Backtracks on Sustainability

Cody Good
Courtesy of LEGO

Lego is finding out that everything is not always awesome in the pursuit of sustainability, even if it’s fun when you’re part of a team.

What happened: Lego has called it quits on its flagship sustainability project to replace its oil-based plastic bricks with ones made of recycled plastic. After two years of testing its prototype, Lego concluded that the switch would be more carbon intensive than its current production methods.

Background: Back in 2021, Lego announced it would seek to eliminate all acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastics from its annual production of 75 billion bricks by 2030.

Using recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) from plastic drink bottles, Lego was looking to make ten of its iconic 2×4 bricks from every 1 litre bottle.

  • The traditional ABS method required 2 kilograms of petroleum for every 1 kilogram of ABS used in roughly 85 percent of all Lego bricks.

By the numbers: Lego uses roughly 2.5 million barrels of oil per year—around the same amount South Korea consumed per day in 2022.

Unfortunately, the recycled plastic lacks the “clutch power” of ABS that makes the bricks connect so well. Instead, RPET requires extra ingredients and energy-intensive processing to achieve the clutch and durability countless feet have regrettably experienced.

Bad news from carbon accounting

To scale up RPET production, Lego would have needed everything in its factories to be changed over to accommodate the extra processes. If the changes were to be made, according to Lego’s findings, the net result would be more, not less carbon emissions through the full RPET process.

Despite its findings, Lego isn’t giving up but instead doubling tripling down on its spending, increasing to $430 million per year by 2025 to reach its sustainability goals.

  • While Lego currently has its Replay Programme that encourages customers in the US, Canada, and soon Europe to donate their bricks to charity, it’s also looking into commercial buybacks for old sets to be reused and packaged for new sales.

Zoom out: Outside of the Lego World, all companies are facing similar trade-offs as they push for sustainable practices. The Financial Times reports that Lego’s CEO (best job ever?) believes that the company’s expanded spending into sustainability R&D won’t be passed on to consumers, but the same can’t be said for every company out there.