Raw Materials in Legos
Legos are an essential part of a child’s adolescence. They help build the foundation for creativity and play. The Lego Company was first founded in 1932 by Danish carpenter, Ole Kirk Christiansen. Originally starting with cellulose acetate, the company now uses acrylonitrile butadiene styrene to create the small blocks. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, abbreviated to ABS, is a common thermoplastic used in many products. These toys go through a long process to be made. First, raw materials are needed to start the cycle, which then go through the production system, forming the mold of the blocks and finally the excess waste that comes out of the entire life cycle. According to the UK Sustainability Report of the Lego Group in 2007, the raw materials used for the plastic toys are from crude oil and natural gas. From their 2012 Progress report, it is stated that their long term goal is to “generate enough renewable energy to balance our ongoing energy needs”. Last year, the LEGO Group reached a recycling rate of 88% and is in the process of planning a wind park to balance the energy consumption. The raw materials used are approved by the company to be safe. ABS is the main plastic used in the production of LEGO bricks. Acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene go through various processes to become the thermoplastic they are used for. Found in the earth then modified and extracted, these raw materials go through a long way to become the LEGO bricks we know today.
Crude oil is the main source of ABS. It goes through several chemical processes to convert the large molecules in crude oil into smaller molecules to make a chain for the plastic. Plastics are very popular because they can be changed easily and customized by varying the atomic structure. Acrylonitrile is very flexible, tough and has high strength; it “is often copolymerized with other monomers to form fibers”. In addition to these characteristics, it contributes to heat resistance and chemical resistance when combined with butadiene and styrene. Butadiene adds “higher impact strength, toughness, low-temperature property retention, and flexibility”. Lastly, styrene provides “rigidity, glossy finish, and ease of process ability” One of the most common ways of processing ABS is by graft polymerization of acrylonitrile and styrene onto a polybutadiene latex, blending it and drying the result. Another way is to manufacture the three polymers separately from the styrene-acrylonitrile latex and then blend and dry.
Acrylonitrile is made up of propylene, ammonia, and oxygen. These chemicals go through the Sohio process made by The Standard Oil Company. “This process is a single-step direct method for manufacturing acrylonitrile from propylene, ammonia, and air over a fluidized bed catalyst”. Presently, more than 95% of Acrylonitrile in the world is produced by British Petroleum, which bought The Standard Oil Company in 1987. The Sohio process started out as a way to “use metal oxides to convert hydrocarbons to oxygenates”. After seeing the success of this process, scientists continued to develop this idea to further extract materials. Following the succession of several tests to create acrylonitrile, a more efficient method was derived to produce acrylonitrile directly from propylene. This was done “by carrying out the entire reaction in a single step with bismuth phosphomolybdate, […resulting] in ammoxidation, a process that produced acrylonitrile in about 50 percent yield with acetonitrile and hydrogen cyanide as co-products”. Acrylonitrile by itself “evaporates when exposed to the air [and] it dissolves when mixed with water”.
Butadiene is one of the “most produced chemicals in the United States”. Some physical characteristics of butadiene are that it is soluble in acetone, alcohol, benzene, and ether. It is produced “by extractive distillation from crude butylene concentration (C4) stream, a by-product of ethylene and propylene production”. A report on the processing of butadiene states that, “over 95 percent of butadiene is produced as a byproduct of ethylene production from steam crackers and recovered via extractive distillation”. This shows that the main source of butadiene comes from ethylene by steam crackers and that distillation is the main way to extract this chemical. Extractive distillation is needed to purify the butadiene “because the boiling points of the components of crude butadiene are so close together”. In this process, the crude butadiene is placed into a column and washed with an extraction solvent. Lighter, less soluble components referred to as C4 Raffinate 1 go out the overhead of the column, while the bottom product contains the extraction solvent, the butadiene, and other materials. Then, this “butadiene-rich bottoms” is fed to another column where the solvent is recovered and reused. The butadiene continues to go through further distillation to remove all impurities before the purified butadiene is finalized, usually greater than 99.5%. Finally, the butadiene is packed carefully as a liquefied or compressed gas. This is the most common way butadiene is extracted from ethylene.
Three additional methods to license and produce butane is by hydrogenation or fractionation, by orbutene®, or by SABIC developed ethylene dimerization. There are a variety of ways of obtaining butadiene depending on the type. Isobutylene is mainly made by using these four methods: MTBE Decomposition, TBA Decomposition, Isobutane Dehydrogenation, and Cold Acid Extraction. Interestingly, butenes can be found in corn. Some health risks of butadiene include increased risk of cancer, irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat, drowsiness and lightheadedness. Butadiene has low-water solubility and evaporates when exposed to the environment. Although this chemical has many threats, if it is handled carefully, then there is no harm. Additionally, the LEGO Group makes sure that the substances used in the making of their toys are not harmful to people.
Styrene is composed from petroleum and natural-gas products. It is a clear liquid that is often used in many products because of its versatility. This material is made in petrochemical plants in the United States and around the world. There are several other ways to produce styrene, such as the conventional ethylbenzene dehydrogenation process, extracting styrene from methanol and toluene, the TOTAL/Badger Styrene Process, and the Lummus UOP SMARTTM SM Process. There are many more other ways to get styrene, all having similar procedures but differences in the catalysts used, chemicals, and machines. The process of obtaining styrene via benzene and ethane starts by feeding ethane and ethylbenzene to a dehydrogenation reactor with a catalyst. This catalyst is capable of producing both styrene and ethylene. Next, the dehydrogenation reactor effluent is cooled and separated as the ethylene stream is recycled. A flow chart of this process, developed by Snamprogetti S.p.A. and Bow is shown in Figure 1.
This liquid is very popular and in constant demand. Consequently, “styrenics producers are [continuing] to restructure, and close less competitive plants in order to boot and restore profitability”. Figure 2 shows the consumption of styrene in the United States. Interestingly, styrene can be found in the environment and in common foods like coffee, strawberries, and cinnamon. It is named after styrax trees, which give off benzoin from their sap. From the benzoin, styrene can be extracted. The molecular formula, C8H8, shows that it consists only of carbon and hydrogen. Styrene has a particular smell that can be detected even at low levels, but it is not harmful to one’s health. Similar to acrylonitrile and butadiene, styrene disappears quickly when exposed to the air. Years of testing show that it is not harmful to workers or to people who are exposed to it for long periods of time.
Using the combined three elements, many companies around the world use ABS in their products. It is a popular material to use, but despite its many desirable attributes, there are some drawbacks to ABS such as “the opacity, poor weather resistance, and poor flame resistance”. However, ABS is recyclable and many appliances reuse the ABS from products in their new products. As one of the leading thermoplastics, the “thermoforming industry [today] has been a leader in the recycling effort because it simply made good business sense”. The LEGO Group recycles their products in a different way than most people think of recycling. According to their 2012 Progress Report, LEGO Group believes “in producing high quality products that last year after year, maybe for generations”. They do recognize that using raw materials for producing, packing, and distributing impact the environment and are currently trying to increase their efficiency and energy usage. Approximately 60% of the total carbon dioxide emissions arise from the raw materials used in the production of LEGOs. LEGO is trying to improve their resources and their sustainability. In this same report, employees found that more than 60% of the discarded plastic waste could be recycled. Over the past year, a total of 279,000 m3 of water was used.
The initial search for raw materials was not difficult, but overwhelming at the amount of information there was to cover. However, as the research began, it became harder to find new materials on the subject. A lot of the sources contained the same information and did not go into depth on the processes of producing ABS. After much searching, there was a report on the production of butadiene and another report on producing pure styrene. However, there was no luck in finding a detailed account of how to obtain acrylonitrile. The LEGO Group has very informative accounts of their progress each year, which was very helpful in learning more about the company. Though the reports are from the company’s viewpoint, consequently having a biased outlook, the facts and percentages stated can be taken as truth. Much of the information was found online and through e-books. It was very difficult to find books that contained the information needed. Focusing on just the raw materials assisted on learning how certain plastics were made and what qualities different materials have. ABS, being a common plastic, had a lot of general information, each article found, stating the same knowledge. Several sources were identical in describing the raw material is.
The LEGO Group has produced millions of these bricks and is established as a successful toy company. They have pledged to improve their sustainability and the raw materials used in the production of the plastic bricks and figures. All the raw materials originate from crude oil and are tested to make sure they are safe. The LEGO Company aims for a higher energy efficiency and zero wastes. In addition, the creation of their own wind farm will aid in producing their own energy sources. Starting from 1958 until today, the LEGO Group has used plastics in the processing of their toys. Acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene are the main raw materials used in creating these popular blocks and continue to aid in the success of the company.
"1,3-Butadiene." United States Department of Labor. Web. 09 Mar. 2013.
“Butadiene Product Summary,” TPC Group
CHEMSYSTEMS PERP Program, “Styrene/Ethylbenzene,” Nexant: San Francisco. 2009. PDF.
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EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, Web. 09 Mar. 2013.
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Harper, Charles A. Handbook of Plastics, Elastomers, and Composites. New York: McGraw-Hill,
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“Lego History Timeline,” accessed March 5, 2013, http://aboutus.lego.com/en-us/lego-
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March 9, 2013, http://www.hpa.org.uk/webc/HPAwebFile/HPAweb_C/1197021725163
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1 “Lego History Timeline,” accessed March 5, 2013, http://aboutus.lego.com/en-us/lego-group/the_lego_history/
2 “Why Are LEGOs So Expensive,” Eamon Murphy, accessed March 5, 2013, http://www.dailyfinance.com/2011/08/24/why-are-legos-so-expensive/
3 Corporate Governance & Sustainability, “The Sustainability Report 2007,” Lego Group
4 The LEGO Group, “Progress Report 2012,” Lego Group
5 Progress Report 2012
6 Progress Report 2012, page 40
7 Harper, Charles A. Handbook of Plastics, Elastomers, and Composites. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. Print.
8 Harper, p. 26
9 Harper, p. 57
10 Harper, p. 57
11 Harper, p. 57
12 Harper, p. 57
13 Harper, p. 57
14 Wakefield, J.C. Acrylonitrile- General Information. Health Protection Agency, 2007. Accessed March 9, 2013, http://www.hpa.org.uk/webc/HPAwebFile/HPAweb_C/1197021725163
15 "The Sohio Acrylonitrile Process." American Chemical Society - The World's Largest Scientific Society. Web. 09 Mar. 2013. <http://portal.acs.org/portal/acs/corg/content?_nfpb=true>.
16 The Sohio Acrylonitrile Process
17 The Sohio Acrylonitrile Process
18 The Sohio Acrylonitrile Process
19 EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, Web. 09 Mar. 2013. <http://www.epa.gov/chemfact/acry-fs.txt>.
20 "1,3-Butadiene." United States Department of Labor. Web. 09 Mar. 2013. <http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/butadiene/index.html>.
21 1,3- Butadiene
22 “Butadiene Product Summary,” TPC Group
23 "PERP Program - Butadiene/Butylenes." Chemsystems. Web. 10 Mar. 2013. <http://www.chemsystems.com/about/cs/news/items/PERP 0910_5_Butadiene.cfm>.
24 White, William C., Butadiene Production Process Overview, Houston: ScienceDirect, 2007. PDF.
25 White, William C.
26 White, William C.
27 White, William C.
28 White, William C.
29 White, William C.
30 PERP Program- Butadiene/Butylenes
31 PERP Program- Butadiene/Butylenes
32 PERP Program- Butadiene/Butylenes
33 “Butadiene Product Summary,”
34 “Butadiene Product Summary,”
35 "FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS." SIRC. Web. 09 Mar. 2013. <http://www.styrene.org/faq.html>.
36 “FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS”
37 "FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS"
38 CHEMSYSTEMS PERP Program, “Styrene/Ethylbenzene,” Nexant: San Francisco. 2009. PDF.
43 "FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS"
44 "FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS"
45 "FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS."
46 “FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS"
47 “FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS"
48 “FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS."
49 Harper, p. 57
50 Harper, p. 741
51 Klein, Peter W., Fundamentals of Plastics Thermoforming, Morgan & Claypool: Ohio. 2009. Print. 77.
52 2012 Progress Report
53 2012 Progress Report
54 2012 Progress Report, p. 99
55 2012 Progress Report, p. 77
Noah Jonah Brozosky
DES 040A, WQ 2013
13 March 2013
LEGO Bricks: Distribution of Embodied Energy Across the Product Life Cycle
LEGO bricks, the eponymous toys designed and produced by LEGO Group, undergo a production and consumption life cycle stereotypical of most material goods: LEGO pieces (LEGOs) are created through a prescribed series of manufacturing steps, proceeding from the raw materials to the finished product through a series of physical alterations. Each of these steps requires energy to either modify (and often refine) the product or to transport it from one location to another. Similarly, once the product has been maximally consumed, energy is required to both transport and process what is now considered waste, and the net total of this energy throughout the product’s life cycle comprises the embodied energy. Naturally, the embodied energy—as well as the waste and emissions produced throughout the life cycle—vary between products, and are generally dependent on both the processes and raw materials used during manufacturing. For many goods, changes to the manufacturing process can greatly reduce the embodied energy, while for others, notably LEGOs, the precursors dictate the energy requirements almost entirely.
The same petroleum products have been used as the starting point for LEGO production since the advent of the plastic LEGO brick in 1958, and dispose LEGOs to an extremely energy-rich early life cycle. The energy involved in both acquiring the petroleum distillates and the subsequent synthesis of the plastic used in LEGO factories far outweighs that used by LEGO Group, both in production and transportation/distribution. As such, even though LEGO Group has, in recent years, painted itself as an eco-friendly, environmentally conscious company, the steps it is taking to reduce its environmental impact are completely overshadowed by the energetic consequences of the raw materials still used in the process. That is to say, that although the LEGO Group is increasing both the efficiency of the manufacturing processes used in its production facilities and the amount of electricity these facilities receive from renewable sources, as well as attaining a simultaneous reduction of industrial waste production, these changes will have a minimal effect on the embodied energy of a LEGO brick so long as it is made from the same plastic.
LEGOs are made of a plastic known as Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, or ABS, a polymer synthesized from the combination of the three compounds contained in its name: acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene, each of which is either directly or indirectly obtained from petroleum. ABS is a thermoplastic, meaning that it is easily moldable above a characteristic temperature, in this case 105 degrees Celsius, and that, upon cooling, it will hold its molded form indefinitely. A defining feature of all thermoplastics is that this process is repeatable ad infinitum, allowing an object to be reshaped recurrently with simple heating and cooling, at least until the polymer structure breaks down as the result of physical wear or UV radiation exposure. ABS is particular resistant to both of these forms of degradation, standing up to mechanical stress for foreseeable durations, in this sense an ideal choice for creating a children’s toy.
However, while the energy involved in the processing of ABS, turning bulk supply into individual LEGOs, is closely correlated to the heat required to sufficiently raise the temperature of the ABS at hand—using a relatively low amount of power, the production of ABS itself consumes over six times as much energy. First, petroleum must be extracted from underground reservoirs, transported to refiners, and distilled via various methods; finally yielding the petrochemical feedstock that can be made into plastic. According to an MIT analysis, this process uses 1,278 MegaJoules/Barrel, which is equal to 2.66 kWh/kg petroleum,. When distilled, crude petroleum yields 2% petrochemical feedstock by mass, the rest being refined to chemicals such as gasoline, diesel, and other oils. As such, if petroleum were mined only for the plastic-making petrochemicals, it would take 133.2 kWh of energy to obtain one kilogram of feedstock; however, a more accurate analysis distributes the energy use proportionately between all the distillates of petroleum, leaving the net energy used at 2.66 kWh/kg petrochemical feedstock8. At this point, ABS can be synthesized from its component substances, a process that requires a massive 26.48 kWh per kg ABS, the chemical processes involved requiring extensive amounts of heat, bringing the embodied energy so far to a sum of 29.14 kWh/kg ABS. Furthermore, depending upon the location of the relevant refineries and chemical suppliers, one must also consider the energy used in transportation from the refinery and to the LEGO factory.
Once it has arrived at the factory, the ABS is heated to a malleable temperature and injected into automatic molding machinery. Based on figures given in the 2012 Progress Report, this process uses an average of 3.97 kWh/kg ABS, given two assumptions: first, that 99% of the ABS entering the factory is eventually turned into LEGOs leaving the factory, and second, that the overhead energy (lighting, A/C, etc…) does not comprise a significant portion of total energy use. The first assumption is safe, given the thermoplastic qualities of ABS and potential cost of unused precursor, as is the second, since these energy losses are nonetheless obligatory to LEGO production; meaning that at this point in its life cycle, a kg of LEGOs has 33.11kWh of embodied energy.
In the pursuit of greater energy efficiency, LEGO Group has already begun to make improvements to the manufacturing process, such as better insulation of heating elements and more frequent maintenance of machinery, somewhat reducing the net energy imbued in each brick. However, the most significant adjustment being made by LEGO Group is the transition to 100% renewable energy, expected to be complete by 2020, with electricity to be delivered primarily from an offshore German wind farm, the construction of which was significantly financed by investments from the LEGO Group. While this will not actually reduce the energy used to manufacture each brick, it will ensure that the factories are using energy free of environmental consequences, including the elimination of emissions that follow the use of fossil fuels. However, in the 2012 Progress Report, LEGO Group states that, “Raw material production is not part of the LEGO Group’s operational boundaries, and the direct influence [of LEGO Group] is therefore limited,” implying that, for the foreseeable future, LEGOs will still be made with ABS plastic, resulting in a high minimum amount of embodied energy in every brick.
Before reaching the consumer, the energy embodied in each LEGO piece is further increased during packaging and distribution. While no information regarding the energy used to package LEGO products, nor any regarding the amount of fuel used in transportation from the factory to retailers, is readily available, it is still possible to estimate the energy used in hypothetical distribution chain. LEGO Group is a Danish company, and one of its largest factories is located in Billund, Denmark, with factory products now exclusively packaged for distribution at a consolidated center in Kladno, Czech Republic. The U.S. is one of the largest consumers of LEGO products, with a LEGO distribution center in Dallas, TX serving most of the nation. Were a batch of LEGOs to take this route, it would travel 705 km by ground—say, using trucks—from manufacture in Billund to Kladno for packaging, after which it would need to travel another 35 km by truck to the port city of Melnik, Czech Republic, to be loaded onto an ocean freighter. Presuming this freighter was destined for the Port of New York, NY, it would travel 6595 km across the Atlantic Ocean before arriving. Once unloaded in New York, NY, the LEGOs could be shipped by train to the distribution center in Dallas, TX, moving another 2062 km before their journey ends. Using published statistics from U.S. Department of Energy regarding the energy used per weight-distance in each of the above methods of transportation,, the energy used in each leg of the distribution chain can be calculated, summing to a value of 0.9114 kWh/kg product shipped. Although this hypothetical situation provides a rough estimate of the energy potentially required to distribute LEGO products, it is still only an estimate, and is only applicable to specific modes of transportation along one of many distribution pathways. Furthermore, the distances travelled in this situation are the linear distances between stops, meaning the actual distance would presumably be significantly larger, implying that the energy use calculated represents and underestimate.
Even so, if one applies the estimated transportation energy of 0.9114 kWh/kg, the embodied energy of LEGOs reaching the consumer is approximately 34.02 kWh/kg, a value that does not account for energy used to package, advertise, or sell LEGO products. Indicative of the effects that material choice can have on the entire life cycle of the product is the fact that 85.7% of the energy embodied in the production LEGOs is used well before the even become LEGOs, that is: in the manufacture of ABS to be delivered to the LEGO factories. In 2012, LEGO Group used 57,000,000 kg of ABS, which, at 29.14 kWh/kg ABS produced, represents 1661.0 GWh of energy consumed in the production of the starting material used to make LEGOs. Comparatively, in 2012, LEGO Group factories used a total of 224 GWh23,, meaning that only 13.49% of the energy used to produce ABS is required to mold it. This statistic has two important repercussions: first, as has already been mentioned, the majority of the embodied energy in the LEGO brick stems from the beginning of its life cycle, and second, that by recycling LEGO products, and thus eliminating the early portion of the life cycle, the embodied energy can be radically reduced.
Theoretically, recycling of LEGOs into other ABS products (or different LEGO pieces), would require the same amount of energy as the original molding: 3.97 kWh/kg; since ABS can be reshaped by the same heating-cooling process used in the production of LEGOs. This value, even after one factors in the energy that would be used to sort and transport recyclable LEGOs, is drastically lower than the 33.11 kWh of energy used in the production of LEGOs from virgin raw materials, having eliminated the energy incumbent in the production of new ABS. Furthermore, if recycling is not a viable option, incineration of ABS products still allows for some of the embodied energy to be harnessed, in the form of either hydrocarbon fuels or heat released during combustion; although this only returns a quarter of the energy saved through recycling. Finally, LEGO waste could be sent to municipal landfills, where only more energy would be embodied at the end of the product’s life cycle, resulting from additional transportation and processing25.
However, in practice, the life cycle of most LEGOs does not end in any of these 3 places. Although it is possible to recycle ABS products, it is likely that any LEGOs committed to municipal waste would make up so small a portion as to not be recovered, incidentally ending up in incinerators or landfills. Of course, due to their durability and reusability, most LEGOs do not even end up in the garbage, but rather are passed on to other children or donated to charity. This is, in itself, another form of recycling, vastly increasing the consumption of LEGO products relative to their embodied energy.
Nevertheless, the rate at which LEGOs are reused fails to match increases in demand, as evidenced by increases in the production and sales of LEGO Group. As such, even though recycling will mitigate increases in the energy embodied in the life cycle of LEGOs, total energy input will still increase. While the adoption of renewable power sources can potentially compensate for this increase in energy consumption, especially if they are used throughout the entire product life cycle, the ultimate production of LEGOs is still limited by the material resources available. Although increased production of plastics (of which LEGOs are a small fraction) should not significantly effect petroleum consumption, as plastics represent only 4% of worldwide petroleum use, fossil fuels are still finite resources. As such, even with proper adjustments to energy inputs and sources, the production of LEGOs is still capped so long as they are made of ABS. Permitting, however, the production of LEGOs from a different substance, it would be possible to greatly reduce the embodied energy, both curbing environmental strain and making the transition to renewable power sources easier to achieve.
The embodied energy of a product is a function of the processes used in its manufacture—from beginning to end, which in turn are dependent upon the materials used in its design. The distribution of embodied energy along a product’s life cycle indicates where changes to efficiency will have the largest total effect, and is also significant with regards to recycling, where the embodied energy located prior to the re-entry of the reprocessed substance into the product’s life cycle represents the energy savings resulting from reuse of the material. Because the material of choice for their construction, ABS, is already rich in embodied energy, LEGOs are an excellent case study in these effects, which shift the energy density to the beginning of the product life cycle, reduce the relative effect that changes to the LEGO brick molding process alone have on total energy use, yet simultaneously increase the relative impact of recycling LEGOs. Furthermore, it follows that, by changing the material used, the designer could modulate the magnitude and direction of the energy modifications corresponding to each part of the product’s life cycle.
Appendix A: Figures and Tables
“About Us.” LEGO.com. LEGO Group. 2013. Web. 3 March 2013.
Boustead, I. “Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene Copolymer (ABS).” Eco-profiles of the European Plastics Industry. Plastics Europe. March 2005. Web. 1 March 2013.
Cooke, James A. “LEGO’s Game-Changing Move.” Supply Chain Quarterly. Supply Chain Media LLC. July 2009. Web. 6 March 2013.
Denison, Richard A. “ENVIRONMENTAL LIFE-CYCLE COMPARISONS OF RECYCLING, LANDFILLING, AND INCINERATION: A Review of Recent Studies.” Annual Review of Energy and the Environment. 21.1 (1996): 191-237. Print.
“Energy Intensities of Freight Modes.” Transportation Energy Data Book. U.S. Department of Energy. n.d. Web. 9 March 2013.
Glanfield, Thomas H. “Energy Required to Produce Petroleum Products from Oil Sand Versus Other Petroleum Sources.” BS Thesis. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002. Print.
Lego Group. “UK Company Profile.” 2012. LEGO.com. PDF file.
Lego Group. “Progress Report 2012.” 2013. LEGO.com. PDF file.
Pelletier, David. “LEGO EXPANDS NORTH AMERICAN DISTRIBUTION CENTER AT ALLIANCE GLOBAL LOGISTICS HUB.” Hillwood. Perot Company. 24 May 2010. Web. 1 March 2013.
“Recycling of Plastics.” Department of Engineering. Cambridge University. 2005. Web. 10 march 2013.
“What are the Products and Uses of Petroleum?” Frequently Asked Questions. U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2011. Web. 5 March 2013.
1 A products life cycle, at minimum, consists of the following steps: 1) Acquisition and processing of raw materials, 2) Manufacturing and processing of finished product, 3) Distribution and transportation, 4) Consumption, Re-use, and maintenance, and 5) Disassembly/Recycling/Waste disposal. See Figure 1.
2 Lego Group 2012 Company Profile, pg. 4.
3 LEGO Group Website, “About Us” page. Sustainability Goals and Progress.
4 LEGO Group 2012 Progress Report, pg. 73-80. Manufacturing process of LEGO bricks.
5 Boustead, I. Description of plastic properties of ABS.
6 Glanfield, Thomas H. Calculated energy expenditures of petroleum product processing.
7 Throughout this paper, all energy and mass/volume values have been converted from original dimensions to kWh, kg or kWh/kg.
8 See Figure 2.
9 “What are the Products and Uses of Petroleum?” Table of petroleum product ratios.
10 Boustead, I. ABS production process.
11 LEGO Group 2012 Company Profile, pg. 8. How LEGO bricks are made.
12 The 2012 Progress Report only lists the mass of raw materials, not finished product, as well as only listing the total energy use of production sites, as opposed to energy use specific to manufacturing processes.
13 If efficiency were to run at 100%, the embodied energy of this process would be 3.93 kWh/kg; see Figure 4.
14 LEGO Group 2012 Progress Report, pg. 95-98. Energy efficiency improvement and renewable energy.
15 2012 Progress Report, pg 80.
16 LEGO Group 2012 Company Profile, pg 8. Idea and production.
17 Cooke, James A. Reorganization of LEGO Group’s distribution chain to a single European packing center.
18 LEGO Group 2012 Company Profile, pg 6. Focus on growth.
19 Pelletier, David. Expansion of LEGO’s North American distribution center in Dallas, TX.
20 “Energy Intensities of Freight Modes.” U.S. Department of Energy published statistics.
21 Ground shipping via Truck: 2,426 kJ/Tonne*km; Ground shipping via Rail: 209 kJ/Tonne*km, Waterborne Container Shipping via Freighter: 160 kJ/Tonne*km. See Figure 3.
22 See Figure 3.
23 LEGO Group 2012 Progress Report, pg. 175. Surrounding environment and yearly input/output data.
24 See Figure 4 for more information regarding calculated values used in this paragraph.
25 Denison, Richard A. Comparison of net energy in municipal waste processing pathways.
26 LEGO Group 2012 Company Profile, pg. 19-22. LEGO and the community.
27 LEGO Group 2012 Progress Report, pg. 11.Yearly Fiscal Data.
28 “Recycling of Plastics.” Consumption use statistics.
Winter Quarter 2013
“LEGO® Heaven?” (Wastes and Emissions)
If you took each and every brightly covered LEGO® plastic brick sold in the last year and laid them side by side they would circle the earth more than 18 times, or so says the LEGO Group’s sustainability progress report for 2012. Not to mention that since the company’s 1958 ribbon cutting, a grand total of 400 billion LEGO® have been produced, leaving roughly 62 bricks per person in the world, according to a recent interview with the LEGO Group. LEGO® factories are now capable of producing 5.2 million bricks per hour.What these reports and interviews with the Denmark based LEGO Group fail to mention is what has happened, and will come to happen, to those many miles and pounds of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic blocks stacked up on the earth.
The production process, as described, is deceptively simple—acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic (ABS) is taken to manufacturing factories in Denmark, Hungary, and Mexico and melted down and shaped by moulding machines. Then the bricks are sorted, packaged and shipped of to the toy stores and into the small joyful hands of children—right? In a very basic sense, yes, but what about the raw materials that make up ABS? What bi-products and toxins are emitted when those resources are pulled out of the earth? And what about waste during manufacturing—what is being pumped out of the factory’s tall ominous smokestacks? And how about packaging—doesn’t that involve the production of even more plastic and refuse? How is the plant powered? What emissions come from that production process? What waste comes from the fuel that jets and trucks use to take the materials and products from all over to world into the hands of those blissful children? And what happens when the toys slip from those children’s grown hands into piles of rubbish big enough to circle the earth? This simplified and easily accessible process fails to give body to the whole life cycle of LEGO® production and the wastes and emissions it creates. While the answers to these questions do not come readily complied into a nice shiny booklet filled with fun facts and figures, while the answers at times may not even exist, as designers it is imperative that we ask and search.
To start the search it is imperative to look at the raw materials used to produce ABS plastic, which are quite numerous. The three main components of ABS are acrylontrile, polybutadiene, and styrene. Needless to say, each of these three are not primary raw materials and can be broken down into many more ingredients and chemical reactions. Acrylonitrile is made through a process called the catalytic ammoxidation of propene—a product of fossil fuel petroleum and natural gas. This processes is highly explosive and can produce carcinogenic fumes that evaporate in air and dissolve when mixed with ground water—denoting easy access into our water systems. Which leads to environmental and ecosystemic problems, including death and poor fertility of many fish, birds, animals and plants.
Polybutadiene is a polymer of butadiene. According to a composite report and study by the World Health Organization, “Butadiene is manufactured primarily as a co-product of steam cracking of hydro carbon streams to produce ethylene in the United States, Western Europe and Japan. However, in certain parts of the world (e.g., China, India, Poland and Russia) it is still produced from ethanol.” As the LEGO Company has factories in both described corners of the world, it is unclear from where their ABS suppliers obtain their materials, and therefore uncertain which process is used. Nevertheless, butadiene airborne exposure is carcinogenic and may also be a teratogon—a cause of physiological abnormalities. Butadiene evaporates in the air and is toxic to aquatic life.
Styrene is produced through a series of complex chemical reactions including a multitude of materials including ethylene, benzene, methanol, and other fossil fuel based substances. Styrene is a toxic hazardous chemical and a possible carcinogen. Contact through the air, touch, and water can all cause negative health effects. Furthermore, through production styrene can end up both in the air and water, and is toxic to both aquatic and terrestrial animals.
At the base of all the raw materials and chemical processes that make up ABS is fossil fuel. Most of these plastic ingredients are derived from or are byproducts of fossils fuels. Not to mention, the drills, tractors, trucks, machines, and factories used to compile these materials into ABS plastic are all fueled too, releasing an incalculable number of carbon dioxide and other fumes into the sea, earth, and atmosphere.
Once completed, the ABS plastic is taken to the LEGO® factories and comes out the doors as nicely packaged bright blocks. But what is less glossy, and much more shadowed is what happens within the factories themselves. And while the LEGO Company remains vague in their publications, it can be gleaned that most of the production is automated—using an assortment silos, pipes, moulding machines, automatic guided vehicles, and other technology. All of this equipment has plugs—plugs that connect to outlets that connect to wires and lines all leading back to power plants. Most of that power is generated using oil, coal, and gas. The production and use of these fossil fuels emits air pollutants including carbon dioxide at unheard of rates every day.
But don’t think twice, it’s all right. Or at least according to the LEGO Group it is. In their aforementioned sustainability progress report for 2012 they state, “In the LEGO Group we want to leave a positive impact – for both our stakeholders and the wider community. We are committed to caring for the society that children will inherit and to inspire and enable them to build the society of tomorrow.” While that statement is vague, the company later continues by affirming in a nice green font, “In 2012, our energy efficiency improvement reached 4.1% which was satisfyingly above our target of a 2.5% gain. With energy efficiency as a continued focus area we saw various successful energy saving projects within compressed air, lighting, ventilation and cooling. Despite these efforts, the LEGO Group’s total energy consumption rose to 224 GWh as our sales and production increased in 2012… However, total CO2 emissions are growing due to rising production, and the increases exceed the efficiency gains accomplished in our operations. The result is an increase in absolute CO2 emissions. A number of projects and initiatives are in progress to remedy this in keeping with the LEGO Group’s Planet Promise.” The report also highlights the factories’ water usage—279,000 metric tons in 2012—and put into basic terms says that they will try harder next time.
Whether it be company green washing or a genuine attempt to care for and inspire the “the children” it does appear that the Lego Group is trying when it comes to waste and emissions. Each year it sets up sustainability goals and in 2003 it signed the United Nations Global Compact. By and large the star of it’s 2012 progress report is the announce of an investment in wind power, “in early 2012, KIRKBI A/S, the holding and investment company of the Kirk Kristiansen family which owns 75% of the LEGO Group, committed to a substantial investment in renewable electricity through the development of an offshore wind farm in Germany. The investment demonstrates commitment from the LEGO Group to deliver its Planet Promise, making a positive impact, and reaching its target of using 100% renewable energy by 2020.” However, the report does not explain when or how wind energy will be used in the actual production of LEGO® bricks.
If the LEGO® factories were to be powered by wind, what about the other steps in the production process. Wind wouldn’t power the airplanes, ships, trucks and cars that deliver and transport materials and products. Wind wouldn’t power that factories that produce ABS and it’s parent chemicals or the factories that provide plastic and cardboard packaging. Wind from a small and local wind farm, while certainly a step in the right direction, would not reach a target of 100% sustainable production if only used to power one link in the chain.
In an interview with the LEGO Group it was asked, “What happens to all the bad pieces? Is there a Lego heaven?” In response to this wonderfully phrased question the LEGO Company responded, “Due to the precision of the brick molding machines, there are very few "bad" pieces—only 18 elements in every million produced fail to meet the company's high standards. Extra pieces or pieces from boxes that are caught on the line and identified as missing pieces or have boxes that are slightly damaged are used for donation boxes that are distributed to underprivileged children's organizations around the world.” And when asked why LEGOs® aren’t made out of recyclable plastic the company replied, “Lego Bricks are recyclable, just not in the way that most people think of recycling. Lego bricks are one of those things that never break and most people pass them down from generation to generation, thus keeping them alive. Also, during production we recycle all of the residual plastic used. In the molding machines, we crunch any faulty elements and put the granulate back in to the mold. Plastic that we can no longer use is sold to industries that can make use of them.” While it is well known that plastic is reused within the factories, no other sources could be found verify that LEGO® really does re-sell unusable plastics back to other industries. And what about all the LEGOs® already out there? Sure they may be passed down, but some will end up in nooks and crannies of attics or toy trunks and will eventually find their way into a landfill.
While contrasting the colorful and cheerful company reports with the sterile and crisp impact reports and chemical studies, I find myself as a future designing asking for a different set of facts and figures. How many times would the coal used to produce ABS plastic and LEGOs® circle the earth if laid down piece by piece. How many billions of gallons of gas has been used in their production since 1958? How much oil is used per hour? Through my research I cannot even begin to calculate the numbers that tallied up show the waste and emissions of LEGO® production, nor could any other source I came upon. Maybe that is because those numbers are incalculable, but in and of itself that is a frightening thought. More likely though, it is because as consumers we only see the final product—a small piece of plastic—not the immense size and cost of it’s creation.
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1 The LEGO Group, “Progress Report 2012”, 4.
2 The LEGO Group. "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lego."
3The LEGO Group, “Progress Report 2012”, .
4 Rosato, Donald V., Marlene G. Rosato, and Nick R. Schott, Plastics Technology Handbook, 605-640.
5 Dynalab Corp, "Plastic Properties Of Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)."
6 Klein, Peter J. Fundamentals of Plastics Thermoforming, 13, 77-79.
7 World Health Organization, "Acrylonitrile."
8 Environmental Protection Agency, "OPPT Chemical Fact Sheets.”
9 National Pollutant Inventory, "Acrylonitrile (2-Propenenitrile): Environmental Effects."
10 World Health Organization, "Butadiene."
11 Landrigan, Philip J., "Critical Assessment of Epidemiologic Studies on the Human Carcinogenicity of 1 ,3-Butadiene."
12 National Pollutant Inventory, "1,3-Butadiene (Vinyl Ethylene): Sources of Emissions."
13 ICIS, "Styrene Production and Manufacturing Process."
14 Science Lab, “Material Safety Data Sheet Styrene (monomer) MSDS."
15 Department of Health and Human Services, "Report on Carcinogens."
16 National Pollutant Inventory, "Styrene (Ethenylbenzene): Health Effects."
17 Rosato, Donald V., Marlene G. Rosato, and Nick R. Schott, Plastics Technology Handbook, 605-640.
18 World Energy Statistics, “Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2012."
19 The LEGO Group, “Progress Report 2012”, 16.
20 The LEGO Group, “Progress Report 2012”, 92-98.
21 The LEGO Group, “Progress Report 2012”, 99.
22 The LEGO Group, “Progress Report 2012”, 15.
23 The LEGO Group, “Progress Report 2012”, 95-97.
24 The LEGO Group. "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lego."
25 The LEGO Group. "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lego."