Let me preface by saying that you cannot actually buy any Lego products made from plants today, but they will be made available later in the year. Unless you go to Ebay, which is where I bought mine. This is not a full length product review, but it is so noteworthy given that this is the first bioplastic I’m aware of being introduced in the toy industry and a significant commitment on the part of a billion dollar, well-respected company in the kids space. This has so many far reaching implications that I wanted to do a mini review because I’m just really excited about it!
Lego announced plans to introduce an alternative to plastic for their bricks way back in 2012. Fast forward to August 2018 and they have just released their first edition, “Plants from Plants”. These are various bushes, leaves and trees packaged in a box of 29 elements that was given away at their stores as a gift with purchase during the first week of August. Needless to say they ran out very quickly and I had to resort to Ebay to get my hands on some. Ten dollars and a week later and I had my hands on two packs of these new shiny toys. I bought two so I had one to open and play with, and another to keep. I don’t know why but it just seemed like a good idea.
Lego’s “Plants from Plants” are made from a plastic, polyethylene, which is made from ethanol produced from sugarcane. This is just the beginning, as Tim Brooks, VP of Environmental Responsibility at Lego stated, “we expect that in the future, some of our different elements will be plant-based, some will be made from recycled material, and some will be both.” They are going all-in on being good environmental stewards with investments in alternative energy sources, a new center dedicated to sustainability employing over 100 people, certificates abound from renewable energy to responsible packaging, partnerships with organizations like WWF and universities to continue looking into alternative materials, all with an ambitious goal of using sustainable materials in all core products and packaging by 2030.
Now if you’re in the Lego game like we are in our house, you might be worried about the quality of these new elements. Have no fear. As far as I can tell these are identical to the current elements they are replacing. I compared one of the branches to one I already had from a Lego Elves set and the only way I could tell the difference is there are numbers molded into the back and with the plant-based elements I could read them a bit better. Lego has highly strict quality standards, as any of us know who might also have lesser brands on our hands. In fact, on their website when describing the new elements they’ve stated “while they are based on sugar-cane material, they are technically identical to those produced using conventional plastic.”
It is this “technically identical” nature that brings up some concerns over the new material. Greenpeace warns that bioplastics can still be damaging. Once they break down, bioplastics, like regular plastics, turn into microplastics which affect our waterways and endanger the ecosystem.
With success comes further concern. Sugarcane is sustainable but increased demand could drive prices up, which might have long-term negative impacts on farmers and surrounding ecosystems, similar to what’s happened in the palm oil business. Local farmers will see valuable real estate in the current habitats housing thousands of important flora and fauna, which might be burned down in order to harvest sugarcane. Additionally, if a farmer can get more money by farming sugarcane than other crops used to feed the local community or if this sugarcane goes towards plastic manufacturers rather than the local community, it disrupts the food supply chain.
I think Lego has shown it is being economically smart and socially responsible. I have no doubt they will do what’s best for their brand and for the planet. The issue that gives me pause is how this advancement will affect the rest of the toy industry. Whether we will see exploitation and “greenwashing”, trying to take advantage of growing consumer interest in eco-friendly products without significantly bettering the environment or lessening their footprint. Ultimately bioplastics are moving forward and having responsible companies such as Lego on the forefront should help us end up in a good place. It is an exciting time to watch the ongoing developments in this area and I love seeing it in products that will ultimately benefit the very consumers they are designed for in the future. That my kids’s childhood toy narrative might be one that includes eco-responsible products is the best outcome of all.