Thought Leadership

Environmentally-friendly Lego

By Colin Walls

I recently wrote about my slightly controversial ideas on plastic and its place in a world where we are trying to care for the environment. I was, therefore, very interested when I heard someone, who is far more qualified in this area than I am, putting forward their views. This proved to be a “good news, bad news” situation …

I was listening to a show on BBC Radio 4 [their main talk channel] called In Business and they were looking at the impact of reducing plastic use on businesses that have traditionally used the material extensively. This featured an interview with Tim Brooks, Vice President, Corporate Responsibility at Lego. [If you can access the show online, the interview starts at 22m50s.]

It was very interesting to hear some perspectives from the representative of such a well-known brand. I guess there is nobody in the western world who has never heard of Lego! As their products are exclusively plastic, you might expect him to have some very clear views – and he did. He was asked how he reconciled the fact that they used so much plastic – the implication being that plastic is an evil material and they should be developing Lego bricks made from bamboo or some-such. His response was that, for a durable product like Lego bricks, plastic is the ideal material. It lasts a long time, delivering many years of service, at the end of which it is readily recyclable. He cited as an example that he had passed on his Lego to his children, some of which he had “inherited” from his Dad. His views aligned perfectly with mine: plastic is not inherently bad; it just needs to be used for appropriate applications and its end of life planned for.

Then, sadly, I felt that things went awry …

Brooks then talked about their program to produce products from sustainable sources. Specifically, they use plastic made from sugar cane. The sugar is made into ethanol and that is made into polythene. The resulting plastic is the same as their usual, oil-derived material. The long-term plan is to make all plastic in this way. Currently just a few parts are produced using sustainable plastic.

This all sounds great and the development of a means to produce plastic sustainably in the future is excellent. However, IMHO, now is not the time to start producing plastic in this fashion. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The land used to grow the raw materials might be better employed growing food at this time. In the future, if this is the only way to get plastic, land allocation may be reconsidered, but, for the moment, we can use oil instead.
  2. The more important reason to use oil-derived plastic is that every gallon of oil used to make plastic is a gallon that will not be burnt, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Plastic a great way to lock up the carbon.

It might be argued that (2) goes away if we simply stop drilling for oil. However, I am being realistic. Human nature being as it is, we will extract oil until it runs out. So the less of it that is burnt, the better.

I would love to hear Tim Brooks’ response to my argument.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at