LEGO commits $150M to search for sustainable alternative plastics

June 23, 2015 |

720_LEGO_bricksloose$150 million, 100+ employees, a new sustainable materials center, and a commitment to move off fossil fuels dependency by 2030.

From Denmark comes the news that LEGO will replace its fossil-based plastics by 2030 with sustainable alternatives. The company announced that it will invest $150 million in the effort to cover research, development and implementation of new raw materials to manufacture LEGO elements as well as packaging materials.. Immediately, the company has established a LEGO Sustainable Materials Centre and expects to recruit more than 100 employees in the effort.

Currently, the company uses 6,000 tons per year of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) to manufacture more than 60 billion LEGO elements.

The centre will be based at the LEGO Group’s headquarters in Billund, Denmark,and will be established during 2015 and 2016. It is expected that it will include satellite functions located in relevant locations around the globe. In addition, the centre will collaborate and develop partnerships with relevant external stakeholders and experts.

An example is the Climate Savers partnership between the LEGO Group and WWF signed in 2013, which has targets on developing a sustainable materials strategy. A new collaboration with WWF was agreed in spring 2015 and focuses on better assessing the overall sustainability and environmental impact of new bio-based materials for LEGO elements and packaging.

What is ABS anyway, and how could you make it renewably?

ABS is a blend — roughly, half styrene and the other half butadiene and acrylonitrile. Today, styrene is made from fossil fuels, via benzene and ethylene; butadiene is made primarily from butane; and acrylonitrile is made from ammonia and propylene.

So, think sustainable, renewable ammonia, benzene, propylene, ethylene, and butadiene — or, perhaps an alternative, high-performance novel molecule with similar cost and strength performance will be found.

A number of players have jumped into the early stages of the race for renewable butadiene. Genomatica/Versalis are hot on the trail of butadiene, with LanzaTech/INVISTA, Arzeda/INVISTA and Global Bioenergies/Synthos. Axens, IFP Energies nouvelles and Michelin announced a partnership in 2013 to develop a bio-butadiene process. Back in 2011, Amyris announced a collaboration agreement with Kuraray to replace petroleum-derived feedstock such as butadiene and isoprene in the production of specified classes of high-performing polymers, but we haven’t heard much on that lately.

One interesting contender over in the area of benzene is Anellotech, whose single step CFP process, invented by Professor George Huber (then University of Massachusetts-Amherst, now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and colleagues, enables non-edible renewable biomass to be processed in a fluidized-bed reactor into aromatics, including benzene, toluene and xylenes (BTX) — critical for packaging, nylons, polystyrenes, rubber — even octane boosters in everyday fuels.

Things you can make from BTX


So, there’s lots of current activity on styrene and butadiene — not as much on acrylonitrile. In recent months, Cargill acquired OPX Biotechnologies, which was focused on 3-HP (3-hydroxypropionic acid) via fermentation, which is then converted in one step to bio-based acrylic acid. But that technology has pathways to a collection of target molecules, which include acrylonitrile, as well as  butanol, BDO, 3-HP, acetyl-CoA, malonyl-CoA, malonate semialdehyde, 3-HP, acrylic acid, PDO, malonic acid, ethyl 3-HP, propiolactone,acrylamide, methyl acrylate, a polymer including super absorbent polymers and polyacrylic acid.

OPX Bio had developed what is generally believed to be a world-class capability in strain and metabolic engineering towards that end.

What about acrylonitrile’s precursors — ammonia and propylene? Back in 2012 we reported that researchers from the University of Utrecht had teamed with scientists from Dow Chemical to ethylene and propylene using a new kind of iron catalyst made of nanoparticles that they developed. But not much since.

Grand View Research wrote last year, “Trellis Earth Products, which acquired Cereplast in 2014, remains as a single manufacturer engaged in biobased PP. The company has production base situated at Seymour, Indiana and markets its product under the brand name Biopropylene. As of 2014, the company is using sugarcane as a raw material for biobased PP production and pursuing efforts on shifting to algae as a biobased feed stock. Other market players include Global Bioenergies, Braskem, Dow Chemicals and Biobent Polymers.”

Meanwhile, companies such as SynGest and GreenNH3 developed some early-stage approaches towards renewable ammonia but most ventures in this rea have run into the proplems of extreme low-cost natural gas.

Rewind to 2012

Back in 2012, the LEGO Group first shared its ambition to find and implement sustainable alternatives to the current raw materials used to manufacture LEGO products by 2030. The decision to significantly boost the search for sustainable materials was taken at the recent General Assembly of the LEGO Group in May 2015.

What is sustainable?

“There is no common definition of a sustainable material,” says Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO of the LEGO Group. “The LEGO Group believes 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. It is a daunting and exciting challenge.”

Reaction from the stakeholders

Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO and President of the LEGO Group, says: “This is a major step for the LEGO Group on our way towards achieving our 2030 ambition on sustainable materials. We have already taken important steps to reduce our carbon footprint and leave a positive impact on the planet by reducing the packaging size, by introducing FSC certified packaging and through our investment in an offshore wind farm. Now we are accelerating our focus on materials.”

LEGO Group owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen comments on the announcement: “Our mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. We believe that our main contribution to this is through the creative play experiences we provide to children. The investment announced is a testament to our continued ambition to leave a positive impact on the planet, which future generations will inherit. It is certainly in line with the mission of the LEGO Group and in line with the motto of my grandfather and founder of the LEGO Group, Ole Kirk Kristiansen: Only the best is good enough”.

“The testing and research we have already done has given us greater visibility of the challenges we face to succeed on this agenda and we respond by adding significant resources in order to be ready to move into the next phase of finding and implementing the sustainable materials. I am truly excited by the full commitment of the Board of Directors and our owner family to significantly boost the work to ensure a lasting positive impact,” says Jørgen Vig Knudstorp.

“This is paramount to us as it enables us to provide children with a unique play experience that inspires and develops them and enables them to build a better tomorrow. This is ultimately the reason for our continued efforts to always do better,” says Jørgen Vig Knudstorp.

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