A sustainable sugarcane plastics revolution?
With the prevalence of harmful single-use plastics firmly in the global spotlight, Lego’s next step in its eco overhaul has been to unveil a range of bricks made from sugarcane-derived plastics. Is this the beginning of a sustainable sugarcane plastics revolution?
What is the Lego Plants from Plants range?
Lego has made a commitment to use only sustainable materials in its core products by 2030. To take the first step towards this, it has released the Plants from Plants range, a set of Lego plants made of plastic derived from sugarcane. Composed of 98% biopolyethylene, the reformulated products meet the sustainability guidelines laid out by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), due to the CO2 absorbed by the sugarcane as it grows.
Brazilian firm Braskem is Lego’s supplier. The company already has a process in place that allows for the conversion of ethanol from sugarcane into ethylene, the precursor for biopolyethylene. Alongside this, Braskem’s sugar is certified as sustainable by Bonsucro, and, according to the company’s findings, each tonne of biopolyethylene removes 3.09 metric tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.
It remains to be seen whether Lego can roll out this process across its entire iconic range of bricks. So they can effectively and repeatedly lock and unlock, the raw material these bricks are made of requires a highly precise specification. Tests have already shown that biopolyethylene doesn’t match this, but the move by Lego demonstrates the role sugarcane-derived plastics could play in a sustainable future.
Biopolyethylene: the future of sustainable plastic?
Lego’s decision to introduce biopolyethylene (or bio-PET) products is testament to its surging popularity in a wide variety of industries. Biopolyethylene is already in the cosmetics industry, where it is used to make containers for shampoos and other cleaning products. Its popularity stems from the fact it results in a plastic that is much less oil-dependent than, but retains the same properties as, standard petroleum-based polyethylene.
Bio-PET also delivers a net reduction of CO2. Not only are the environmentally damaging effects of petroleum production all but avoided, using sugarcane as a feed crop absorbs CO2. Building on the statistics we have already seen from Braskem, global bio-PET production consumes over 1.5 billion pounds of CO2 a year.
These findings are promising but cannot be viewed in isolation. Sugarcane production is resource intensive, often requiring the fossil fuels saved by producing bio-PET to support growing the crop in the first place. In addition, as is the case with any large-scale production of feedstock, fertilizers and pesticides are also required. More information on the difficulties in finding sustainable methods of sugarcane production can be found in my earlier blog on Bonsucro’s voluntarily sustainability standards (VSS).
What part will sugarcane play in a sustainable future?
Despite the inherent challenges that come with sugarcane growing, bio-PET demonstrates the crucial role the crop could play in finding an alternative to traditional polyethylene. With many companies across the globe, such as Evian, beginning to set plastic use reduction targets, bio-PET provides an immediate and viable solution that is free of sacrifice. As for Lego’s brick, only time will tell the role sugarcane will play in their future.