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 multicoloured 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 System A/S 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 rigours 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, Denmark.
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, such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, are doing away with plastic straws in their outlets.
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.
Currently, Lego mostly uses a substance known as ABS, short for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a common plastic also used for computer keys and mobile phone cases. It’s tough, yet slightly elastic, and also has a polished surface.
To wean itself off products such as ABS, Lego has begun an exhaustive search for new, sustainable materials.
Company researchers have already experimented with around 200 alternatives. Among them, Mr. van der Puil said, was a substance called PLA, one of the few bio-based plastics that are readily available. Lego is also already using polyethylene made from sugar-cane husks in flexible pieces such as dragon wings, palm trees and fishing rods, but these constitute only 1 per cent to 2 per cent of its output, and the material is too soft for the company’s toy blocks.
Most test materials, both bio-based and recycled, have so far fallen short. Some bricks made with the new materials have broken, leaving sharp edges that could injure a child, or have popped out with ugly, muddied colors. Others have, on occasion, produced misshapen or pockmarked bricks.
The search for a substitute for petroleum-based plastic could yet take years of work, Mr. Brooks acknowledged. Still, executives argue, as a company that models itself as a de facto educator as much as a profitable enterprise, it has little option but to keep trying.
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