Pity poor LEGO. It is under attack from environmentalists for using plastics to make its miniature blocks. Stung by such criticism, it has launched an ambitious program to create sustainable building blocks for the next generation of kids.
For decades, LEGO was a rather dull company that sold red and white plastic building blocks about the size of dominoes. Kids could snap together to make interesting things, as long as those things were square or rectangular. They were entertaining enough to keep us quiet for hours, which was really all our mothers could ask for.
Then the new millennium arrived and LEGO downsized its blocks as the company went upscale. Today, it is making money hand over fist and has become what some call “the Apple of the toy world.” There are LEGO office towers and race cars, airplanes and trendy juice bars. There are billions of those adorable little blocks in zillions of cool colors sold every year — every one of them made of plastic.
Remember that famous scene in The Graduate when a businessman gives a word of advice to new college graduate Benjamin Braddock? “Plastics!” he announces, cryptically. Indeed, when the movie came out in 1967, plastics were the up and coming thing. Any young person looking to start a career was well advised to get into the plastics industry.
Since then, plastics have grown to be the third largest manufacturing industry in the US. The industry employs 885,000 people and has more than $380 billion in annual sales, according to a trade source. The only problem is that plastics are made from oil. That, and they take a thousand years or more to breakdown. Billions of tons of plastics are floating in the world’s oceans. Billions more are choking our land fills. The bright, shining dream that plastics offered in the 60’s has turned into a nightmare of global proportions today.
LEGO says it is looking for a way to find sustainable alternatives for making its cute little building blocks and it is putting its money where its mouth is. It will spend $150,000,000 to create a “LEGO Sustainable Materials Centre” that will research new raw materials. The company has pledged to make all of its products from sustainable sources by 2030. A company spokesman says “the materials we have now are based on petrochemicals, which are not sustainable,” and that the goal is to find “new and sustainable alternatives” to its existing materials, according to Quartz.
LEGO recently terminated a contract it had with Shell Oil to sell its products at Shell’s gasoline stations, which is a step in the right direction. But Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO and president of LEGO group says, “There is no common definition of a sustainable material. Several factors influence the environmental sustainability of a material—the composition of the material, how it is sourced and what happens when the product reaches the end of its life.” That sounds like he intends to “slow walk” the transition to sustainable materials in order to make sure company profits don’t suffer.
There are plans afoot to convert the entire world to renewable energy sources by 2025. Surely LEGO could find a way to make its adorable building blocks from raw materials that don’t pollute the environment in less than 15 years, couldn’t they?
Photo via Inhabitat.
This story was first published on Green Building Elements. Reprinted with permission.