Lego makes more than 60 billion elements every year. In this feature for Plastics News Europe, David Eldridge sees that the group's sustainability potential is huge, but so is the challenge.
The 100 specialists Lego is recruiting for its new Sustainable Materials Centre will have the most open-ended R&D challenge of anyone working today in the plastics materials industry.
Lego announced in June 2015 it would invest 1bn Danish krone (€134m) in the centre, based at its headquarters in Billund, Denmark, to develop alternatives to the oil-derived ABS material used in its toy bricks, giving a deadline of 2030 to achieve this.
“There is no common definition of a sustainable material,” said Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO and president of Lego Group. “Several factors influence the environmental sustainability of a material – the composition of the material, how it is sourced and what happens when the product reaches the end of its life. When we search for new materials all of these factors must be considered.”
Lego's open-ended approach means its research will be diverse – it is not restricting itself to just bio-based plastics.
“Unconventional carbon” sources will also be explored, said Tim Brooks, vice president of environmental sustainability at Lego Group. These sources could, for example, be carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or algae-based feedstock, he said. Other options for research are recycled polymers and bioplastics derived from plant matter that would not compete with food crops for land use.
Explaining Lego's ambitious R&D programme to Plastics News Europe, Brooks said: “It's an iterative process. We're on this journey to 2030. So each iteration of materials will be assessed as the project proceeds. Sometimes improvements will be smaller, sometimes bigger.”
When it comes to sustainability, Lego doesn't do things by half. Lego's majority owner Kirkbi is investing in wind farms to help it reach a goal for 2020 to balance its energy consumption with new renewable energy capacity.
Lego has also installed injection moulding machines with better energy efficiency, and standard machines have been optimised to produce higher output per square metre for standard elements. These group-wide efforts led to a 14% improvement in energy efficiency over the three years to 2015, achieving this goal one year ahead of plan.
The ambitious goal for Lego to become 100% sustainable in materials by 2030 was first agreed in 2012. Brooks said: “We worked super hard on that, but we realised we weren't getting the traction we needed. The challenges were much bigger than we initially thought. So we thought, ‘how do we accelerate this?'”
This then led to the decision to invest in the Sustainable Materials Centre, which will comprise 4,000 square metres of research facilities and employ about 100 people when it opens in 2018. Lego intends the centre to also be used as a means of communication with the manufacturing world, said Brooks: “We want it to be a global lighthouse for sustainable materials.”
The research will consider many different material streams. As well as the ABS used for bricks, other polymers are used to mould parts in Lego Technic kits for wheeled and flying vehicles – such as tyres, clear parts, moving parts, parts with low friction and parts with high friction. And whatever is developed must not compromise the quality or safety standards set by Lego.
“We acknowledge it's a very difficult task [to find alternative materials],” said Brooks. “Our precision requirements mean we mould to microns. And there are performance requirements in the materials, such as compressibility, tensile strength. These things make it a big challenge.”
Everything is up for assessment – materials, processes, packaging, all adding to the complexity of the work.
“We know we can't do this alone,” said Brooks. So Lego is talking to potential partners from diverse groups, including universities, its current suppliers, new suppliers and small-scale innovators.
The specialists the group is hiring for the centre will be equally diverse. Brooks said it will recruit experts in materials, materials handling, moulding, and other disciplines such as sustainability experts to carry out life cycle analyses. “We want a multi-disciplinary approach as we think this will drive the success of the centre,” he said.
Having set itself a huge and complex challenge, does Lego see any quick gains from its sustainable materials project? “In the short term we expect to see innovations in the packaging used,” said Brooks.
It has already started in this area. Efforts to reduce box sizes for new products meant Lego saved about 7,000 tonnes of cardboard in 2015.