Sustainability Roundtable: Paper Bags and More

Recently, The LEGO Group announced that they were accelerating their timetable for eliminating single use plastics from their packaging. I had the opportunity to attend a roundtable meeting discussing the LEGO Group’s Sustainability Ambitions. Along with with ambassadors fro several Recognised LEGO® Fan Media and recognised LEGO® User Groups, this online meeting was with Tim Brooks, Vice President for Environnmental Responsibility, as well as Sustainable Materials Directors, Anne Boye Møller and Steen Kjeld Bach Pedersen.

The prime focus was on the recent announcement of the forthcoming trials of paper bags to replace the plastic bags used in LEGO® sets. However, there was a general discussion about the sustainability agenda at the LEGO group, the elimination of single use plastics, the LEGO Replay program, and the importance of children in establishing this agenda.

The Sustainability Agenda

Tim Brooks, Vice President for Environmental Responsibility at the LEGO Group

Tim Brooks discussed how sustainability has always been part of the LEGO Group’s ethos, both social and environmental. Over the years it has been called different things, as well as meaning different things to the company. In the early days it was about looking after the company’s people and local environment. Now, that outlook is more global. It is about the sourcing of raw materials, it is about reducing the impact of transportation, it is about incorporating recycled materials where possible, as well as aiming for a useful ‘end of life’ of the products: both for waste, as well as the bricks themselves.

“The ultimate goal is really to eliminate the environmental impact of making LEGO Bricks, so we can focus on the social impact: bringing learning through play and creativity to everyone out there.”

Over the last 10-15 years, the company has been far more concrete on some of the specific activities they are engaged in to reduce their environmental impact: “In 2015 we set a goal to balance our energy use with renewable energy; we also set some goals with the use of sustainable materials and packaging… Initially we had sustainable packaging as a 2030 goal, but, because of some of the responses to plastic out in the environment, and also some of the enthusiasm from kids who wrote to us, we decided to bring forward that target.”

Other initiatives have been launched over that time as well: Plants from plants (made from biopolyethylene) in 2018, as well as shrinking the overall size of boxes over the las few years by 14% on average. This has resulted in taking 7000 tonnes of cardboard out of the company’s production every year, and about 3000 trucks off the road. 

“You might remember that back in 2015, we announced about $150 million USD on [research into] sustainable materials. This announcement today is an acceleration of that announcement, as well as some other initiatives. Expectations arising from our stakeholders, from children, from our fans, but also our expectations internally – I think the urgency to take action is increasing. This is what we have tried to build into this plan. 

“We want to create and increase our attention on sustainable products and packaging. We will give you a very concrete idea of that with the paper prepacks coming forward. 

Once we achieve zero waste in our operations in 2025, as well as balancing our renewable energy, we will be looking at carbon neutrality across our supply chain as well and become more circular: looking at the end of life of LEGO bricks. LEGO Bricks are more durable than most things out there – we really want to take our responsibility for the billions of bricks that we produce every year

It comes into the design of the products: “How can the electronics be designed so that they can be more readily recycled at their end of life? What do we want to do about promoting the reuse of bricks, as a first step? What about addressing the end of their life – and allowing an easily recycled journey. That fits into our sustainable materials agenda as well, looking at how we might create a fully circular loop where we are using more recycled materials, and ultimately using bricks that have been out there in the world and come to the end of their useful life. One day would we be able to reuse them in new bricks again.”

Phasing Out Plastic Bags; Phasing In Paper Bags

Sustainable Materials Directors, Anne Boye Møller and Steen Kjeld Bach Pedersen

There is no escaping that LEGO Bricks are made of plastic. However, even though they are made of plastic from non-sustainable sources, they are extraordinarily durable.

However, the plastic film used in the internal bags are not readily reuseable, or recyclable. They can be reused: certainly, I have received several Bricklink orders over the years that have been sent sealed in fragments of the internal polybags. But this is not the case for all users. And while the film can technically be recycled, not all regions have such services readily available for this type of plastic.

The LEGO sustainability team looked at several options for replacing these bags: recycled plastic films, biobased films, and various types of paper, including one sourced from stone! Ultimately they have come back to regular paper, sourced from sustainable woodpulp. The environmental impact is clear: from its source, its manufacture, its reuse and recyclability.  

“One of our key insights at the beginning of the program was into establishing the functions plastic bags provide today. Of course, they are see-through: you can see the bricks, they keep the bricks together, and they help the build order. But what we found is that they are actually quite hard to open if you are a child: you often need parental support, you need a pair of scissors, or you need someone to open it.  And, when you open them, they often explode a bit: the parts can fly all over [the place] … So, we wanted to find a bag that was easier to open. We wanted to dig deeper on transparency: Obviously, paper in most of its forms is not transparent: there are some tracing papers and some semi-transparent papers which are heavily coated [in plastic film], but they become harder to recycle. 

Prototype paperboys being tested ahead of next year’s wider trial (image supplied) http://www.billedwerk.dk

We got some great insights: as long as the build order was clear, and as long as it was clear as to what was in the bag to help navigate the build, we found that transparency was not necessarily an issue.  We also talked about, trying to make the bag as reusable as possible and – so you can roll the top of the bag down, and you can refill it. That is one of the things we are continuing to work on and test and trial. That might be some of the information we can get from this trial as well, because reusability is also a way that we can reduce our environmental impact. We know a lot of fans grab ziplock bags, and trays and bowls to help with their building process, so we have thought that if we can help replace that ziplock bag, that would be helpful.

Supplied by the LEGO group

What keeps us going is the letters from kids saying ‘we love LEGO, we love building LEGO, but this part is something we are not so keen on. What can you do differently around the plastic bags?’

“Once we set the direction… that was the easy part.”

This has been a big team effort, with around 75 people working on the project across different departments and project streams. It is important to find the right quality in a paper bag, and then to secure that level of quality. The question arose about ensuring the quality of the build experience, despite the loss of transparency.

We have only seen images of paper bags with similar markings to those we have seen on our current transparent bags: Brickset asked whether these were just prototypes, and whether we might expect some changes in the instructions.

 Anne Boye Møller explained: “That is also on our agenda and we will look into what graphics to put outside the bags to support the building experience journey. Or course we will still have the numbers that we have been used to. We will have the same element split inside the bags that we have been used to, as well as the same small bags inside and so on. But how to navigate in the building instructions and link that to the bags – that is something that we will look into now. We did not show the graphics [in the press release] because they are still under development.”

That said, some paper bags sourced from LEGO surfaced on the Brick Link forums back in July 2020. This gives an example of what MIGHT be pronted on the bags. These are already several months old, and I suspect further graphics are likely to have been developed in the meantime.

Paperbags that have been sighted, and reported on the Brick link forums. These are unlikely to be the final designs of the paper bags to be used.

Is it possible that paper bags will be more prone to tearing than plastic ones? Absolutely, and the team have sourced different types of paper from different suppliers for the trials. The materials appear to be strong enough to withstand some inpacts, and not tear or break open.  The exact sizes of bags to be used are still under investigation as well, and might need to vary depending on the mix of elements that they are required to hold.  Part of the trial is to not only look at how well the paper bags stand up to this daily use, but also how well the ink transfers onto the paper, and whether it does so without smudging or smearing.

Tim Brooks explains: “The simplest thing would have been to put quite a thick coating onto the paper to give it strength. But we are making this change for a sustainability reason, as we felt very strongly that if we ended up with a heavily coated paper, it wasn’t much of an improvement on a plastic bag. We have a single digit, a very low level of coating, and essentially that coating passes all of the recyclability and pulpability tests that you need to call it recyclable paper. You will see some paper bags out there: they aren’t really paper: they are plastic with a thin layer of paper on top, and we did feel strongly that that wasn’t in the spirit of the change.”

Can we expect the instruction books and stickers to be enclosed in a paper bag in the larger sets? Absolutely. The plan is to replace all of those internal plastic bags. How the first bag to open is communicated remains to be determined.

Other options with paper bags have also been explored, like a seam opening up along the back, be create a small tray: it was one of the early prototypes and not as functionalas had been hoped. It was felt that a refillable bag was likely to be more useful. Reusable cardboard trays have also been considered, such as those used in the advent calendars, but it would not take too long for enthusiastic LEGO fans to have more trays than could ever be needed.

Brick Fanatics asked about the using paper for the external packaging for blind bag products such as collectable minifigures, which are subject to frequent pre-purchase paplpation. The team acknowledged that at this time the paper does not appear to be strong enough for these products, and they are looking into alternative packaging.

The Trial Begins In 2021, Initially In 5 Sets, Sourced From The Czech Republic.

I asked how we might expect to find these packages next year. There will be a small level trial at first: five sets, across different product lines. And there will be lots of scope for collecting consumer feedback about the use of the paper bags, as well as the printed graphics on their external surface, and how that influences the building experience. This will be expanded to around 20-25 sets as they year goes by. There are different challenges to be had with different themes: Star Wars, City and friends sets have a lot in common, but tend to use a different parts palette. In order to maximise the learnings from the trial, it will involve 1-5% of the total product line. At this stage, we don’t know which sets will contain the paper bags, so we will have to keep our eyes open for them in 2021.

Larger standing bags, as well as a smaller ‘pillow bag’ p- some of the bags under investigation for the new internal packaging. http://www.billedwerk.dk

So, can we expect to see different types of bags during the trial? And where can we expect to see them? We can expect to see both white paper bags and unbleached bags in the coming trials. There are also 2 main designs of bag: a ‘pillow bag,’ used for smaller bags, as well as a larger standable bag. There will be smaller pillow bags inside these bags is required, like the smaller bags we currently see inside the numbered plastic bags.

Examples of manufacturing codes seen on LEGO Boxes. The bottom box was packed on Thursday of week 28 in 2020 at the factory in the Czech Republic.

Steen Kjeld Bach Pedersen went on to explain that the factory in the Czech Republic will be the first factory to be producing sets with paper bags, but beyond that, we are uncertain. How can you tell if your set came from this factory? Check the manufacturing code on the box, of tape seal. It has the format (d)wwfy, where (d) is an optional day code, ww is the week number, is the factory code and y is the last digit of the year.  For the Kladno factory, the factory code is S. So, look out for sets labelled wwS1. These are most likely to be amongst the first to feature paper bags. But, as we mentioned, only a small percentage of sets produced will be included in the trial. Some of the other challenges that exist will include refitting the factories for bag manufacture and packing, while having a minimal impact on overall production.

Sustainable Materials And Processes

Some might argue that the production of paper is a more carbon intensive process than the manufacture of paper – between cutting down trees, pulping them, and so forth: to counter this the team undertook a deep lifecycle assessment comparing the material. It is a finely balanced equation, and that balance can be affected significantly by the source of the paper stock: currently, paper and cardboard make up 90% of the packaging used, by weight. At present, 75% of the materials used in the inner and outer carboard packaging has been obtained from recycled sources. The new raw materials for all new paper and card stock are currently obtained from FSC certified, sustainable, forests. When choosing paper, the environmental impact doesn’t disappear: but it is so much more useful as it reaches its end of life because of its recyclability, compared to the bags currently used for internal packaging. Further mitigation comes from the LEGO Group offsetting the cost through the use of renewable energy.

Periodically, the topic of sustainability, and plant based raw materials comes up as a topic of conversation on various online forums. And there appears to be a degree of confusion. this was highlighted by Francesco Spreafico from ItLUG as well as Matej Pukancik from tatraLUG. Even though the final plastic is the same (polyethylene), some people are concerned that this means that the plastic is biodegradable – liable to just fall apart if left packed up in a cupboard for a period of time.  This is NOT the case.

Tim Brooks responded: “Our solid aim is not about biodegradable bricks. It is in the ingoing chemical components from a plant, but every stage in the game, the goal is to make the bricks last as long as our current bricks, if not longer. It is safe to say that you will not see decomposing bricks anytime soon.” Please take solace from this: new elements will not just crumble into dust if left to their own devices, unattended!

supplied: the LEGO Group

Speaking of this, where do we currently stand with the development of LEGO bricks from plant based materials, pioneered with the Plants from Plants?

“ We will continue to look at ways which we can apply that bio-polyethylene into more elements: it could be minifigure accessories, hairpieces and anything that is a more softer material, regardless of whether it is currently in polyethylene or not. But anything that’s a bit softer and a bit more flexible, we will continue to look at how we can use that material. We continue on the general quest for more sustainable materials, [that is] materials with a lower carbon footprint, so that means generally materials that have come from renewable sources. Like the ‘plants from plants’ materials, it could come from sugar cane, corn, Or wheat. Ideally, it would be sourced from waste agricultural products, and not food grade material. That’s certainly our priority there. 

The LEGO Ideas Treehouse has the largest number of elements made from sustainable materials to date, with over 100 polyethylene tree branch elements. There is no difference between the bioethylene soured from plants and that sourced from petrochemicals.

“We are working hard on recycled materials as well: the challenge of recycled materials is being able to guarantee the supply chains, knowing exactly where that material comes from, and what it has  been on contact with beforehand, maintaining our quality and safety. Most likely, we are looking at recycled materials that have come from the food industry, or food grade materials: that offers the safest and most high quality sources. For those of you who are knowledgeable about our own production, you will know we reuse a lot of plastic in our manufacturing already – a lot of the injection lines and stringers –  such that after they are used in the mould blocks, are ground up and reused. “

What about shipping? Krista Simpson of MILUG asked about the significant amounts of packaging materials, in the form of plastic air pillows, used in the distribution of LEGO, through online channels. Tim Brooks responded by considering a number of processes in development:  in particular, the use of Shipping a set In its Own Container: many of the larger sets are currently packed directly into a shipping box when they are manufactured: For sales fulfillment, they only need to place a label on the box and then ship it out. There is a saving in doing it this way, rather than putting 3 or 4 sets manually into a box and adding additional packaging. As the growth in online shopping continues, it becomes a bigger and bigger part of the things that we think about as we go on our sustainability journey.

Manufacturing: Minimising The Carbon Footprint and Waste; Maximising Efficiency, Recycling and Renewable Energy

The company has been focussing on reducing the carbon footprint generated by manufacturing LEGO Bricks in a number of ways

The amount of energy used throughout the LEGO group has been reduced in a number of ways: the Mexican factory has been fitted out with more efficient LED light bulbs; the Danish factory has implemented a new aircooling system for the production process of moulding LEGO bricks, minimising the need for a refrigerant based system.  The new LEGO campus in Billund utilised a stronger plasterboard in its construction, saving 22 tonnes of steel, with an associated reduction in CO2 emission. 

The LEGO group has installed solar panels on the roof of the new Billund campus, as well as the factory in Jiaxing, China. More panels are being installed on site at Nyíregyháza, Hungary, and other sites.

Supplied: The LEGO Group

At the same time, the Borkum Riffgrund 1 offshore windfarm in Germany, as well as the Burbo Bank extension off the coast of Liverpool, mean ultimately that 100% of the LEGO Groups energy needs are offset elsewhere through the provision of renewable power (owned by KIRBY A/S, the LEGO Group’s parent company.

Finally, the goal is to eliminate waste being sent to landfill by 2025: currently 92-93% of the production waste is recycled, including all plastic waste from the moulding machines. Unfortunately, there is still a small amount that ends up in landfill at present.

LEGO Replay

In 2019, the LEGO group launched ‘REPLAY,’ a program where users could return unwanted LEGO bricks to the company, for redistribution to underprivileged children.

Presently, you print off a mailing label from the website, and ship your unwanted bricks off. They get cleaned up and redistributed. To date, over 23000 children have been able to use over 78 tonnes of reused bricks. Over the next year or so, we can expect the program to expand into another two marketsaround the world.

When asked about the sustainability of returning the bricks to a central point, Tim Brookes pointed out that the major energy and material use in getting LEGO Bricks to children is in the manufacturing process. There is a 75% reduction in environmental impact by sending out used bricks rather than creating them from scratch.

Learning Through Play

“We are aiming to inspire children about sustainability through the action of building with LEGO bricks – be it the Vestas Wind Turbine set, or the LEGO Ideas Tree House with sustainable leaves, or some of the activities through ‘Build the Change.’ We want to say, ‘Well, what’s our part, in not only reducing our own impact, but trying to make a bigger impact out there in the world with those kids who are going to be those decision makers in the future’. And I think that’s the bit that we know unites all of us on this mission, internally: not what we can do directly, but what we might be able to influence as well.”

Build the change: design you’re school. Source: LEGO.com

During the Q&A section of the meeting, Graeme from Brick Fanatics, asked for further information about ‘Build the Change’, as well as other activites that the group were engaged with for educating children about sustainability:  “’Build the change’ which is a well-established program, where we challenge kids to build, for example, a sustainable version of your school, or a sustainable version of a street you’d like to live on or what have you. Then we take those models to key policymakers and decision makers – we might take those models to the local city council or to the united nations. It’s a really great way for children to express their feelings, and desires, and ambitions through a creative medium that they really love and feel good about using. A lot of these kids are so young that they are not writing, or unable to express it in another way.

“We joined recently with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, who promote a lot of circularity and circular economy. We are kicking off some webinars with them, with more teenage kids. We want to make the LEGO Brick more circular in its use, but as a demonstrator of the circular economy itself, it is a really powerful tool. The circular economy says ‘you want to get metal and make a spaceship, then you could melt that down and make a car and then a soft drink can of coke. LEGO is a great way of explaining that to kids, because you can build the spaceship with LEGO, then the same materials can be taken apart to build a car. That’s a good way to talk about how we should talk about material use in general. So there are lots of different platforms and lots of things being planned.”

“I think, in terms of putting kids at the centre, we say that we want to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow – and that’s something that really resonates with all of us in LEGO: in that the activities we do with kids today, the kind of company we are with kids. The kind of planet that we inhabit, and interact with today, has an effect on those kids when they are older. They will be the world leaders, decision makers, parents, teachers, police-men and women of the future. So, what sort of planet is it that we want to leave for them? What kind of responsibility do we want to take here and now and today, for their future as well? We feel very strongly that as kids grow older, they should look back on the toys and the company that we are and we were, and that they feel we played our part. I think that’s ultimately where we come from on this journey, where we try and put them right at the centre, and think about their future as well.”

The Effect of Children:

Supplied by the LEGO group

I asked Tim Brooks about the nature of correspondence received from children: “ On the whole, they are very emotive, and a very open call to action. “What are you going to do? “How are you guys going to play your part?” That’s the part that makes you question and reflect on what our role is here. What does minimising the impact of LEGO Mean. On the world stage, we are a relatively small company – but all of us have the passion for learning sustainability through play. I think we can have a much bigger impact – minimising our footprint is super important, and I feel we can have a bigger effect that. We do that by inspiring and working with those kids. Any time someone draws a picture as well is always super nice in terms of the great ideas – the boxes could look like this or that”

I think that covers most of what was discussed at the round table. There is a lot of information to be found on the LEGO.com website about the current sustainability agenda, and some of the material discussed has been expanded on with material available online. Ultimately, sustainability covers all aspects of the company’s processes: from developing new materials to manufacture bricks, to the packing and shipping materials – as well as the impact they have on shipping. From improving manufacturing processes to reduce energy requirements, to offsetting carbon footprint through investing in renewable energy production. In the end, some of these steps forward are inspired by the primary customer base: children, and their desire to see the world develop into a better future, and in turn to further inspire them to think about the way they use things.

As for some of the more immediate changes that we will see, I am curious to see the effects of changing the internal single use plastic bags to paper over the next few years. It will be a significant change for us to adapt to, but ultimately one where we can have a better impact on the planet that we are preparing for the next generation.

I hope you have been able to gain something from the things we learned at the round table discussion. Hopefully some aspects of the recent announcement regarding paper bags have been clarified for you.  I’d love to know what you think: why not comment below and share this article with your communities as you see fit.

Until next time, Play Well!

5 thoughts on “Sustainability Roundtable: Paper Bags and More

  1. Very interesting post, thank-you for sharing. While I’m more then happy to have them use paper bags instead of plastic for the parts, I am concerned about the instructions on larger sets going that way too. Mainly concerned about how automated machine filling will cope with a weaker material when packing. My Hogwarts Castle instructions where in a box inside a box and still arrived with a ripped bag which must have been put in first as the manuals where all damaged with small tears in the first two. The 1989 Batmobile manual was tightly wrapped in a softer plastic which keep it nice and safe. How will they get around sealing a manual or multiple manuals with sticker sheet/s inside paper without damaging the contents. Will be interesting to see. As for the parts, there’s a 4 in front of the 5 in my age so a simple printed number is all I need and I doubt children are going to want more then that either as they will be too eager to get to the parts inside!

    The Build The Change part and talking about the letters received (such as that last one from an 8yr old) concerns me more though. While teaching children responsible ways in which to live, I worry about the longer term effects of drumming the idea of the world ending without changing to “sustainable” ways will have. I’ve seen it in the schools with my nieces and nephews and worry about how much parents may be putting this on their children. It’s the sentence about Build The Change part allowing children too young to be able to write what they are feeling being able to build it with bricks. If your child is too young to write about environmental change and sustainability, they are not going to understand what it’s about unless you’ve been brain washing them or put them up to building something. I just find this part of the Lego groups aims to be a bit on the cringe worthy side, but that’s just me and I don’t have children. Though I was 15yrs old when mum had my little sister and helped raise her to not waste and to appreciate the value of everything, she’s 31 and expecting here first child later in the year (Duplo collection already started!!) and she’s turned out fine, grows her own vegies, keeps food scraps for her chickens and recycles or reuses everything and she learnt all that without being scared that the world would end before she grow up!

    Anyway that’s my 2cs worth. Again really good post and thank-you for sharing 🙂

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  2. Paper packaging definitely offers several advantages, but durability — especially when wet — is not one of them. Without addressing this issue, folks living in rainy climates will have to learn to check the weather forecast before making online purchases.

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    • The external packaging is not going to change, for the majority of sets. I suspect if the weather is so wet, that the outer box is dissolving, there are bigger problems afoot in the world

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