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Lego hunts new bricks for a sustainable future

It wants its toys made from plant-based or recycled materials by 2030

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Lego has begun an exhaustive search for new, sustainable materials. It is investing about one billion kroner and hiring about 100 people to work on these changes.

Billund, Denmark

AT the heart of this town lies a building that is a veritable temple to the area's most famous creation: the humble Lego brick.

It is filled with complex creations, from a 50-foot tree to a collection of multi-colored dinosaurs, all of them built with a product that has barely changed in more than 50 years.

A short walk away in its research lab though, Lego is trying to refashion the product it is best known for: it wants to eliminate its dependence on petroleum-based plastics, and build its toys entirely from plant-based or recycled materials by 2030.

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The challenge is designing blocks that click together yet separate easily, retain bright colours, and survive the rigours of being put through a laundry load, or the weight of an unknowing parent's foot.

In essence, the company wants to switch the ingredients, but keep the product exactly the same. "We need to learn again how to do this," said Henrik Ostergaard Nielsen, a production supervisor at Lego's factory here in Billund.

Consumers worldwide have voiced growing alarm about the impact of plastic waste on the environment, and increasing numbers of companies are trying to use packaging materials that are recyclable or otherwise less polluting.

Unilever, the consumer goods giant, says all its plastic packaging will be recyclable or compostable by 2025. Others, such as McDonald's and Starbucks, are doing away with plastic straws in their outlets.

With so many large businesses changing their practices, recycling will "become the norm", said David Blanchard, Unilever's head of research and development. Lego faces a more complex problem than other consumer businesses, though - for this Danish company, plastics are not the packaging, they are the product.

The toymaker's highly automated manufacturing facility in Billund is a picture of clock work. At a mammoth factory more than 500 yards (457m) long, machines arranged in rows melt plastic pellets into a molten paste and press them into molds.

A few seconds later, a batch of coloured bricks pops out, and is deposited into driverless carts, taken to be stored for shipment. Each day, the facility churns out about 100 million "elements", the term Lego uses for the bricks, trees and doll parts that it sells.

Lego - the company's name is a contraction of the Danish words for "play well" - traces its roots back to the early 1930s, when a carpenter named Ole Kirk Kristiansen began making and selling handsome fire engines and other wooden toys. By the 1950s, he was experimenting with plastic bricks. His son Godtfred began marketing the distinctive little blocks not just as toys, but as a building system that could be expanded and passed on to later generations.

Bricks that date back to 1958 are still compatible with current products, according to Lego. Today, the company sells its wares worldwide and has secured partnerships with film franchises such as Batman and Star Wars to market not just themed brick sets, but movies and video games featuring Lego toys.

It brought in 7.8 billion kroner (S$1.7 billion), or about US$1.2 billion, in profit last year, making it larger than its US rivals Mattel and Hasbro. The Kirk Kristiansen family, which still controls Lego, was paid a US$1.1 billion dividend.

Its heft, however, brings with it a substantial carbon footprint. Lego emits about one million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, about three-quarters of which comes from the raw materials that go into its factories, according to Tim Brooks, the company's vice-president for environmental responsibility.

Lego is taking a two-pronged approach to reducing the amount of pollution it causes. For one thing, it wants to keep all of its packaging out of landfills by 2025 by eliminating things such as plastic bags inside its cardboard packaging. It is also pushing for the plastic in its toys to come from sources like plant fibres or recycled bottles by 2030.

The problem with that target, though, is that virtually all of the plastic used worldwide - including that molded by Lego into toy bricks - is created from petroleum. Currently, Lego mostly uses a substance known as ABS, short for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a common plastic also used for computer keys and mobile phone cases. It's tough, yet slightly elastic, and also has a polished surface.

Lego has begun an exhaustive search for new, sustainable materials. It is investing about one billion kroner and hiring about 100 people to work on these changes.

Technicians methodically test promising materials to see whether they can take a whack without breaking, or survive a hard pull. They are checked to see if they withstand the heat of a Saudi Arabian summer, and take on the bright colour palette that Lego bricks are famous for.

The company's bricks may look simple, but they are made with incredible precision. "We look at how does it look, and how does it feel," said Nelleke van der Puil, Lego's vice-president for materials. NYTIMES