Lego is a company haunted by its own plastic

“In the future, they should only make such announcements when they actually do it,” says Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics. The World Economic Forum predicts that global plastic production will double in the next 20 years, yet advocates in the US, for example, claim that the vast majority of plastic, 95 percent, is never recycled.

Paolo Taticchi, a business sustainability expert at University College London, says Lego can be seen as “quite credible” in its decarbonization efforts because the company has invested so much in the venture. For example, in 2015, Lego committed $155 million to establish a sustainable materials center. Despite the failure of the rPET work, it still employs 150 engineers working on alternative initiatives, the company said.

But Taticchi doesn’t mince his words. Decarbonization is no longer just a nice-to-have: “They won’t survive as an organization if they don’t find a solution.” Last month, Lego reported that its operating profits had plummeted by 19 percent, the sharpest decline since 2004.

It is very difficult to find a practical alternative to ABS, says Gregg Beckham of the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He and colleagues are working on a bio-based functional replacement for ABS. Would it have all the special features required for a high quality Lego piece? “To be clarified,” he says, noting that “several companies” are currently working on distributing similar technologies.

There is growing awareness that plastic can persist in the natural environment. Long-forgotten plastic toys, possibly including Lego pieces, have even turned up at a former nuclear missile base in Poland where the families of Soviet officers once lived in secret.

And don’t forget all the Lego in the sea. Every month or so, Tracey Williams, an author and founder of the Lego Lost at Sea project, meets with local fishermen in Cornwall, England, who rescue Lego pieces caught in their nets. In 2020, she co-authored a study that suggested that tiny little pieces of ABS Lego could remain in the ocean for between 100 and 1,300 years and create microplastic particles.

Some of the pieces Williams collected are up to 50 years old. However, most came from a lost shipping container that was crammed with nearly five million Lego bricks. A wild wave hit the ship Tokyo Express in 1997, causing the cargo to tip into the water.

“You can only tell that they have been lying on the ocean floor for 26 years by the marine life that grows on them,” she says. “They survive remarkably well.”

The weathering of the recovered pieces varies, but remarkably, despite their long stay under the waves or in sand dunes, some are in good enough condition to be used again. And the sheer durability of ABS could provide Lego with an answer, or part of an answer, to its problems.