Lego, the infamous toy that offers limitless creative blocking options, is now planning to go completely sustainable. By 2030, the company intends on producing most of their products and packaging from recycled materials, specifically plant-based plastics.
They will make small plastic trees and bushes for its play-sets using ethanol extracted from Brazilian sugarcane. It’s an admirable endeavor that has garnered much praise, and rightfully so. Any movement in the direction of sustainable production should be commended, but it also shouldn’t be blindly celebrated either.
The Problem with Lego:
It’s not exactly easy to find problems with a toy that continues to embark upon innovative play. However, its commitment to plastic made from plants isn’t exactly sustainable. While sugarcane plastic does not come from fossil fuels, it is produced through farming that uses up a ton of resources.
Plastics made this way are almost entirely produced in the same manner as conventional plastic, making it recyclable but not biodegradable. If it ends up in the environment, it will still break up into tiny pieces known as micro plastics. While they offer alternatives to oil-based plastics, they still don’t provide a viable alternative to the ongoing pollution crisis.
The pieces that Lego intends on producing using ethanol from sugarcane instead of chemicals from oil, only comprise between 1 and 2 per cent of Lego products in total.
Lego’s Toy History:
Among the millions of plastic toys made by Lego each hour, most are molded from a fossil fuel-based plastic called ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). ABS cannot easily be replaced with a plant-based alternative. It takes 2 kilograms of petroleum to make 1 kilogram of ABS plastic, which can be recycled but it isn’t collected in most household recycling systems.
Farming sugarcane can put huge stress on the environment because it utilizes large plantations that make use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, in addition to large amounts of water. The problem with sugarcane plantations is that they displace local farmers, sending them to the more marginalized outskirts of vulnerable lands. And ethanol refineries generally have highly exploitative working conditions.
There are many more sustainable sources of ethanol than sugarcane. One option is to produce it by farming blue-green algae. Another is to generate it from household waste, or through the residues of coffee production. All plastics are made up of single chemical blocks known as monomers, which are linked into bigger chains called polymers. When it comes to polyethylene, it does not matter what chemical source is used for the monomers because the end result of plastic is the same.
Materials classified as bioplastic are not necessarily biodegradable, and even if a plastic is classified as being so, it means that fungi or bacteria can break it down but this can still takes decades, and leave toxic residue behind.
Lego is essentially indestructible, and its continued popularity means that it is likely to be passed down from generations. Still, it contributes to the pollution problem and should be taken seriously.