Lego has abandoned its highest-profile effort to ditch oil-based plastics from its bricks after finding that its new material led to higher carbon emissions, in a sign of the complex trade-offs companies face in their search for sustainability.
The world’s largest toymaker announced two years ago that it had tested a prototype brick made of recycled plastic bottles rather than oil-based ABS, currently used in about 80 per cent of the billions of pieces it makes each year.
However, Niels Christiansen, chief executive of the family-owned Danish group, told the Financial Times that using recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) would have led to higher carbon emissions over the product’s lifetime as it would have required new equipment.
Lego has instead decided to try to improve the carbon footprint over time of ABS, which currently needs about 2kg of petroleum to make 1kg of plastic.
“In the early days, the belief was that it was easier to find this magic material or this new material” that would solve the sustainability issue, Mr Christiansen said, but “that doesn’t seem to be there. We tested hundreds and hundreds of materials. It’s just not been possible to find a material like that.”
Lego’s change of tactics highlights the difficult decisions facing companies on sustainability where different targets such as eliminating the use of fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions can come into conflict.
The group intends to triple its spending on sustainability to $3 billion (€2.8 billion) a year by 2025, and Mr Christiansen conceded that could hurt its profit margins as it would not pass on the higher cost of buying sustainable materials to consumers.
Another big push is to enable the billions of bricks sitting in children’s bedrooms to be reused or recycled into new ones.
Lego has started the Replay programme in the US and Canada – and which will come to Europe next year – in which people donate their bricks, which are then sorted and cleaned before going to charities.
Tim Brooks, Lego’s head of sustainability, said he hoped Lego would have answers to how to best collect and sort the bricks in the next two to three years before it launched a more commercial offering by which people could earn money from handing back their old sets, which in turn could be reused and packaged as new sets.
“It’s better to reuse than recycle. So we’re looking at a circular business model – how do we earn revenue from recircling bricks. It’s quite a shift in thinking and ideas,” he added.
– Copyright the Financial Times Limited 2023