Teaching Lego To Play Well By Eliminating Plastic

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Tim Brooks, Lego’s vice president for environmental responsibility, says the company emits about a million tons of carbon dioxide each year. Credit Carsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times

For a company, and a product, that has been a part of so many lives for so long–and especially one whose name means to play well, it is still a shock to be reminded of their carbon footprint. And three years after first reading about their commitment, it is good to read details of their plan and progress:

Lego Wants to Completely Remake Its Toy Bricks (Without Anyone Noticing)

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At Lego, petroleum-based plastics aren’t the packaging, they’re the product — and the bricks making up these dinosaurs have barely changed in more than 50 years. Credit Carsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times

BILLUND, Denmark — At the heart of this town lies a building that is a veritable temple to the area’s most famous creation, the humble Lego brick. It is filled with complex creations, from a 50-foot tree to a collection of multicolored dinosaurs, all of them built with a product that has barely changed in more than 50 years.

A short walk away in its research lab, though, Lego is trying to refashion the product it is best known for: It wants to eliminate its dependence on petroleum-based plastics, and build its toys entirely from plant-based or recycled materials by 2030.

 The challenge is designing blocks that click together yet separate easily, retain bright colors, and survive the rigors of being put through a laundry load, or the weight of an unknowing parent’s foot. In essence, the company wants to switch the ingredients, but keep the product exactly the same.

“We need to learn again how to do this,” said Henrik Ostergaard Nielsen, a production supervisor at Lego’s factory here in Billund.

Consumers worldwide have voiced growing alarm about the impact of plastic waste on the environment, and increasing numbers of companies are trying to use packaging materials that are recyclable or otherwise less polluting. Coca-Cola, for instance, plans to collect and recycle the equivalent of all the bottles and cans it uses by 2030. Unilever, the consumer goods giant, says all its plastic packaging will be recyclable or compostable by 2025. Others, like McDonald’s and Starbucks, are doing away with plastic straws in their outlets.

With so many large businesses changing their practices, recycling will “become the norm,” said David Blanchard, Unilever’s head of research and development.

Lego faces a more complex problem than other consumer businesses, though — for this Danish company, plastics are not the packaging, they are the product.

The toymaker’s highly automated manufacturing facility here in Billund is a picture of clock work. At a mammoth factory more than 500 yards long, machines arranged in rows melt plastic pellets into a molten paste and press them into molds. A few seconds later, a batch of colored bricks pops out, and is deposited into driverless carts, taken to be stored for shipment. Each day, the facility churns out about 100 million “elements,” the term Lego uses for the bricks, trees and doll parts it sells…

Read the whole story here.

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