Lego, which uses more than 70,000 metric tons of plastics per year, says it is making progress toward its goal of using only sustainably sourced molding materials.
More than 70 people now work in a new $146 million Sustainable Materials Center headed by Nelleke van der Puil, who was named VP Materials two years ago after she spent 14 years at Advantium, a leading-edge biomaterials company based in the Netherlands.
Engineers at the center are testing prototypes made of bioplastics to make sure they meet demanding specifications of the global toy maker. Earlier efforts to use specially compounded grades of polylactic acid supplied by NatureWorks fizzled because they lacked long-term “clutch” strength. The PLA worked great, except that complex models would start to collapse after a few weeks because of poor creep properties of PLA.
Newly tested prototypes were made from a plastic derived from wheat. Wheat gluten is a cheap by-product from the bio-ethanol industry that is said to have interesting viscoelastic properties. Lego did not identify the supplier.
“The present materials are carefully selected and refined to perfection over the years regarding their physical properties,” says van der Puil. “These unique properties like strength, durability, clutch power and color fastness makes the building system possible and thereby constitutes the basis for the overall Lego experience. Maintaining these properties in the Lego bricks after a shift to an alternative material, makes the search a real challenge. Maintaining these properties is a prerequisite for the unique Lego play experience.”
Lego is working with many partners, ranging from NatureWorks to startups with embryonic technologies. Last year, the company joined the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, an initiative of the World Wide Fund for Nature to help guide the search for sustainable alternatives. Ford and P&G are among the members.
Van der Puil says that Lego is trying to find replacements for more than 20 types of plastics by 2030.
Lego’s criteria for replacement plastics are:
- No undesirable chemicals;
- Sustainably sourced and manufactured feedstock; and
- Minimum waste.
Replacement of fossil fuel plastics is one component of a broad Lego campaign to have a net positive impact on greenhouse gases.