Back in 2012, the LEGO® Group announced that they would be undertaking an ambitious journey towards producing only environmentally sustainable plastic by the year 2030. They have since partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to develop and assess biologically sourced materials to be used in LEGO® bricks and their packaging. August 2018 marks the release of the first fruits of this labor, with set 40320. This small box of plants is being given away at the LEGO® Store from August 1 to the 14, 2018 with purchases over $35. I am going to take a look at these elements today, but not in the format of one of my traditional reviews, since this is not a traditional set. Today’s article will be more of an informative, environmental look at the LEGO® Group’s first foray into a sustainable future.
First off, what does it mean to be sustainable? The LEGO® Group’s website is fairly vague in this regard, saying that there is “no common definition” for the term. Their interpretation is that a “new sustainable material must have an ever-lighter footprint than the material it replaces across key environmental and social impact areas such as fossil resource use, human rights and climate change.” Like I said, vague. Having been trained in ecology and wildlife biology, to me, sustainability implies using the finite resources of this planet responsibly, in such a way that does not deplete them. It means meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of tomorrow. It is important to note that when I use the term “needs”, I am not referring solely to human needs. We share this planet with around nine million other species who have an intrinsic right to exist, and therefore a right share those natural resources with us.
So, what has the LEGO® Group concocted to reach it’s goal of sustainable bricks? Well, it has produced polyethylene made from sugarcane, which is virtually indistinguishable from the original plastic that was sourced from fossil fuels. Polyethylene is probably the most common type of plastic used around the world. Grocery bags, most toys, and storage containers (like shampoo bottles and garbage cans) are often made from polyethylene. About 80 million tonnes of polyethylene are produced every year around the globe. Traditionally, polyethylene is made from petroleum or natural gas. Both of these are non-renewable resources as they require millions of years to form (they are actually the remnants of dead and decomposed organisms that lived way before humans ever walked the planet). Producing polyethylene from sugarcane is not a new science. In fact, it has been within the realm of possibility since the 1920s. However, it has only been in the last decade or so that its use is becoming more widespread.
Overall, bio-polyethylene is better for the environment. It uses plant waste produced in the production of sugar. It’s carbon footprint is much lower than that of plastic made using fossil fuels because sugarcane consumes carbon dioxide in order to grow. This stores carbon dioxide in the plant and its derivatives instead of releasing it into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming. While some carbon dioxide is still released in processing the sugarcane, it is technically carbon dioxide that was already in the atmosphere, and the plant took it out. Using petroleum to make plastic only releases carbon dioxide that has been stored for millions of years, adding to current atmospheric greenhouse gases.
But, now the million dollar question, is bio-plastic production really sustainable? We are farming sugarcane anyway, so using the waste from refining sugar makes sense from an ecological standpoint. However, the key word before was “farming”. Farming requires forests to be cut down, ecosystems to be destroyed, and pesticides to be used. Human farming practices are not sustainable, especially with an ever growing population. Habitat destruction is currently the leading cause in the endangerment of species around the planet.
There is also the added complication that most of the plastic used in LEGO® bricks is not polyethylene. Most bricks are actually made from the more durable ABS plastic, which is fossil fuel based. Only elements that need to be more flexible are polyethylene, and that represents only about 1-2% of all of the parts produced, according to the LEGO® website. But, as the LEGO® Group has pointed out, this is only the first step in their journey towards sustainability.
So, what is my final word on the new sustainable LEGO® elements? Are they sustainable? No, in my personal opinion, they are not. If we are going by the idea that sustainable use of natural resources does not compromise the survival of future generations (regardless of species), then bio-plastic LEGO® is not sustainable. It relies on farmed products, and farming by humans is not currently sustainable. Is bio-plastic better for the environment than traditional polyethylene? I would say it absolutely is. It consumes waste from a product that we are already producing, and lessens greenhouse gas emissions in the process. Calling these elements “sustainable” is a bit of a misnomer in my opinion, but it does reach the LEGO® Group’s goal of having “an ever-lighter footprint than the material it replaces”. It may not be technically sustainable, but it is more environmentally friendly. I think these elements are the first step in the right direction, and the LEGO® Group should be applauded for the effort.
Do you have any thoughts concerning the new LEGO® bio-plastic? Feel free to comment below. Until next time,