Is going green worth the cost? - A brief take on Lego's new initiative for green plastics

    According to a recent NY Times article, Lego is spending 1 billion kroner ($118.3M) and hiring 100+ people to solve it's "plastic problem."

    Some of us aren't convinced there is a problem to solve.

     
    ...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.
    — Stanley Reed, NY times
      The company uses polyethylene made from sugar cane husks in flexible pieces like dragon wings, palm trees and fishing rods, but the material is too soft for blocks.   - Carsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times

    The company uses polyethylene made from sugar cane husks in flexible pieces like dragon wings, palm trees and fishing rods, but the material is too soft for blocks.  - Carsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times

    Going Green with Legos

    As with any initiative, it's worth measuring the impact. And given the numbers above, Lego is making a significant investment in green-plastics. So let's see what data is available on the internet to help us understand the impact.

    • How many individual Lego piece designs could be impacted?
    • How many sets contain those particular pieces?
    • What is the average cost-per-distinct-piece for the new material?
    • What % of total Lego parts can be improved with his new plastic?
    Lego is also already using polyethylene made from sugar-cane husks in flexible pieces like dragon wings, palm trees and fishing rods, but these constitute only 1 percent to 2 percent of its output, and the material is too soft for the company’s toy blocks.
    — Stanley Reed, NY Times

    Looking at the Data

     Lego Data Model. Courtesy of Rebrickable.  https://rebrickable.com/downloads/

    Lego Data Model. Courtesy of Rebrickable. https://rebrickable.com/downloads/

    After a quick Google search, you find the data available from Rebrickable.com with data on Lego sets, parts, and inventory in each kit. Using the data model illustrated on the right, I replicated the model in Tableau Prep and built a file for loading into Tableau for analysis. In the flow file, I followed the below approach:

    1. Build the Parts workflow (parts, colors, categories)
    2. Build the Sets workflow (sets, themes, inventories)
    3. Join Parts and Sets together to get Parts in Sets over time

    NOTE: You will need a self-join to get "theme" and "parent theme" for some of the Lego sets. Example "Classic City" has themes of "Airport","Building","Cargo", etc.

     Tableau Prep flow file to build the data for our analysis. (composite image)

    Tableau Prep flow file to build the data for our analysis. (composite image)

    After running the flow and importing data into Tableau Desktop, let's first focus on Plant-like Lego parts that could qualify for this new plastic.

    Note: Based on our initial research and reading additional sources, it sounds like Lego is focused on replacing the polyethylene (PE) components with bio-sourced plastic. The regular bricks/blocks/plates are made from a plastic called ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and cannot be made with PE due to the relative softness of the material. Given that we don't have MATERIAL data for each piece, we will focus on the group "Plants and Animals" for an approximation.

     Looking at green bricks in Lego sets since 1955, the "Plants and Animals" category represents 215 bricks which would qualify for testing with the new plastic.

    Looking at green bricks in Lego sets since 1955, the "Plants and Animals" category represents 215 bricks which would qualify for testing with the new plastic.

    You will notice that "Plants" is a rather small, yet important category of lego parts. By far, the largest category of green parts is Minifigs, followed by Bricks, and Tiles. So, from Lego's standpoint, this is a relatively safe category to experiment with. Many of the tree/plant parts are thin, non-structural and used for aesthetic purposes in the builds.

    However, there are only 215 unique parts in the data given to us, which is a low number of parts to focus on for the purposes of re-engineering the underlying plastic.

    Taking the set of 215 part above and looking at sets that include these parts over time, we get the following chart. This illustrates which sets and parts would be most impacted by Lego's change to plant-based plastics.

     Looking at individual parts in Lego sets since 1955, Parts 3741, 30176, and 2423 are all likely candidates for being in multiple sets with the new plastic.

    Looking at individual parts in Lego sets since 1955, Parts 3741, 30176, and 2423 are all likely candidates for being in multiple sets with the new plastic.

    Looking at the top three pieces affected, we can see they are plant-parts which are fairly common in sets with a landscape.

     
     Flower Stem - 3741. Image courtesy of  Bricklink.

    Flower Stem - 3741. Image courtesy of Bricklink.

     Bamboo Leaves - 30176. Image courtesy of  Bricklink .

    Bamboo Leaves - 30176. Image courtesy of Bricklink.

     Leaves 4x3 - 2423. Image courtesy of  Bricklink.

    Leaves 4x3 - 2423. Image courtesy of Bricklink.

     

    Conclusion

    Based on our research, even if Lego moved to bio-sourced plastic for these plant pieces, that would affect 215 parts out of 21, 849 (some items excluded by category from the database results). That's 1% of all Lego parts. So, let's now take $118.3M dollars and assume each part takes the same R&D effort to remake, that assumes each "green lego piece" cost nearly half a million dollars to re-engineer! ($550,232,55 to be exact!) Now, let's assume molding/manufacturing process consume half of that cost, we are still left with $250k -- which is enough for 2-4x engineer's salary+benefits for at least 1 calendar year. Does it really take 4 engineers to switch the base material of a single Lego part...?

    |: : :|

    There is an interesting perspective at the end of the article, a quote from Tim Books, the Lego VP of Environmental Responsibility.

    It is important that we can make a toy that doesn’t jeopardize children’s future.
    — Tim Brooks, Lego Vice president for environmental responsibility.

    It's hard to imagine that a few plastic bricks are ruining our children's future because they are made from oil-based plastics.

    It's even harder to imagine that Lego bricks are getting thrown away or seen as disposable.

    Who the heck is throwing away their Lego bricks so that this is even as story!?

    I volunteer to "recycle" them. :)

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