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Sweet development: Lego injection molds some bricks from sugar-based polyethylene

Toy construction block icon Lego A/S is rushing to replace ABS in part of the toy sets it manufactures.

The Danish company said on March 1 that it will use sugar cane-based polyethylene for botanical elements such as trees, bushes and leaves beginning this year. The move is part of Lego’s commitment to use sustainable materials in core products and packaging by 2030.

Lego has been experimenting with alternatives to ABS, the major plastic resin it injection molds into its blocks and accessories. In early 2014 it announced it aimed to replace ABS by the year 2030.

Lego spokesman Bogdan Gherasim told Plastics News in a phone interview that Braskem SA is the supplier of the bio-based PE. Lego has begun using the Braskem resin in its Billund, Denmark, production plant but it hopes to expand the usage to other global facilities.

Gherasim said he could not provide a timetable for the expansion of the initiative.

The use of bio-derived PE will only account for 1 to 2 percent of the resin Lego uses for its toys but the initiative is the thin edge of a wedge that could replace more than 9 million pounds of ABS usage per year. (In 2014, ABS accounted for about 70 percent of Lego’s annual plastics consumption of about 13.2 million pounds.)

“We are proud that the first Lego elements from sustainably sourced plastic are in production and will be in Lego boxes this year,” noted Tim Brooks, Lego vice president of environmental responsibility, in a news release.

Brazilian resins giant Braskem introduced sugar cane-derived PE in 2010. The process entails fermenting sugar cane into ethanol, then converting the ethanol into ethylene, the precursor to polyethylene. Braskem has since then been making such PE in a 400-million-pounds-per year sugar cane-to-ethylene plant in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. The plant cost $290 million to build.

One of the early North American users of Braskem’s I’m Green PE resin is small toy company BeginAgain Inc. of Fort Collins, Colo. For the past few years BeginAgain has been using the resin for a line of dump trucks and related machinery under license from construction machinery major Deere & Co.

Other I’m Green users are concentrated in Brazil, but some global heavyweights have also begun using it. Packaging firms Printpack Inc. and Consolidated Container Corp. and consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson are among the many companies using I’m Green, according to Braskem’s website.

Lego wants the replacement for ABS will ensure bricks made from it fit exactly into the ABS bricks it has made for the past 60 years. In early 2014 an official said early trials with impact-modified polylactic acid highlighted problems. The PLA-based bricks did not click and stick together as well as Lego wants.

The ability for bricks to stay clicked together until a child separates them — “clutch power” as Lego terms it — is so important that the company has a specific testing system for it.

Lego claims the sugar cane used in its bio-based PE is sourced sustainably in accordance with the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance and is certified by the Bonsucro Chain of Custody standard.

Lego has several sustainable initiatives on the go. Suppliers must comply with the firm’s codes for ethical, environmental and safety practices. Lego also works with suppliers to develop life-cycle assessments that map environmental impacts from the production of bio-based material. It has invested in wind power to offset its use of electricity. It has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature to help reduce CO2 emissions. It targets zero waste by 2030 and is building a new “green” headquarters in Billund.

» Publication Date: 01/03/2018

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