The US finally joined Lego-land this week when the iconic Danish toymaker tapped the State of Virginia to host its first ever factory in the country. The Lego Group already makes solar-themed kits with its iconic bricks, but this time it’s for real: the new factory will sport an on-site solar power plant big enough to match its entire electricity demand.
Solar Power Vs. Wind Power On The Atlantic Coast
Lego staked out its initial clean tech reputation more than 10 years ago with a focus on wind power, so those of you familiar with the geography of the US may be wondering why offshore wind is not front and center for the company’s foray into Virginia, which sits on the wind-rich waters of the Atlantic Coast.
Good question! Offshore wind development along the Atlantic appeared poised for takeoff during the Obama administration, only to meet a series of roadblocks partly on account of the political situation in several coastal states. The bottleneck has finally broken wide open and Virginia is among the frontrunners, but offshore wind at scale is still a number of years in the future.
The solar power picture is more of a here-and-now situation. Virginia already rates an impressive #10 for installed PV capacity on the 50-state rankings compiled by the Solar Energy Industries Association, with 3,790 megawatts worth of solar power already in the ground and another 4,135 megawatts projected in the pipeline over the next five years.
More Solar Power For More Factories
The new Lego announcement provides the PV industry in Virginia with a high profile example of the power of renewables to attract new business.
“The location in Virginia allows us to build a solar park which supports our sustainability ambitions and provides easy links to country-wide transportation networks. We are also looking forward to creating fantastic employment opportunities for the people of Virginia,” enthused Lego Group CEO Niels B. Christiansen.
To be clear, the new $1 billion factory will not run exclusively on solar power. It is designed as a carbon-neutral facility that will match its energy needs to the output from the onsite array, meaning that non-renewable resources will still have role to play in running the factory. Still, it’s a strong start, and Lego aims to minimize the use of non-renewables by conforming the new factory to LEED Gold energy efficiency standards.
Lego Takes On Recycled Plastic Challenge
Lego has also been turning its attention to plastic recycling, which befits its position as a manufacturer singularly dependent on high performance plastics.
Plastic recycling can really use a helping hand. The field has been a disaster for generations, with the global recycling rate still moping around in the single digits despite years of regulatory and voluntary efforts. Among other disincentives, new plastic items made from old plastic typically don’t perform as well as virgin plastic.
More recently, researchers have begun to figure out how to deconstruct plastic waste and reassemble it for performance metrics that meet, or potentially beat, virgin plastic. Lego has invested significant dollars in that effort.
“A team of more than 150 people are working to find sustainable solutions for LEGO products,” the company explained in a press release last year. “Over the past three years, materials scientists and engineers tested over 250 variations of PET materials and hundreds of other plastic formulations. The result is a prototype that meets several of their quality, safety and play requirements – including clutch power.”
Aside from the performance angle, Lego also has to make sure that its new recycled plastic bricks fit seamlessly into its 60 years’ worth of other bricks. Color, for example, is going to be a challenge.
“It will be some time before bricks made from a recycled material appear in LEGO product boxes. The team will continue testing and developing the PET formulation and then assess whether to move to the pilot production phase,” Lego said last June. At the time, they expected this stage of the project to last a year, so they could be just about ready to do an update on their progress.
As for how they do their plastic recycling, they’re not saying, except to say that unique “compounding technology” is in play.
What About That Supply Chain Angle?
If all goes according to plan, solar power will not be the only sustainability feather in the cap of Lego’s new US factory. Recycled plastic waste from the US could be front and center, too. Apparently US regulations regarding PET plastic (the kind used for plastic bottles) have been providing the company with the kind of quality assurance they need.
“The prototype is made from recycled PET sourced from suppliers in the United States that use US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approved processes to ensure quality. On average, a one-litre plastic PET bottle provides enough raw material for ten 2 x 4 LEGO bricks,” Lego explained.
That’s of interest from a supply chain angle because Virginia sits in the middle of the East Coast population hub, where millions of PET plastic bottles are thrown away daily. That would provide the company with a steady, reliable stream of feedstock if and when it shifts into recycled plastic.
Lego actually began introducing plastic alternative back in 2018, when it began using sugarcane-sourced bioplastic for soft accessories like trees, leaves, and minifigure outfits. Finding substitutes for the plastic used in bricks has been far more challenging. If Lego is successful, it could motivate toy makers and other plastic stakeholders to seek alternatives, too..
More Solar Energy For Sustainable Toys
Evidently Lego has been doing its solar energy homework. Last year the company’s fan-friendly new product incubator featured an expandable solar energy array complete with beehives, pollinator habitat, and grazing sheep, all of which are elements in the overlapping fields of regenerative agriculture with agrivoltaics.
Don’t run out to the store just yet. As of this writing it’s unclear if the idea made it out of the incubator and into the Lego factory, but you can still get your hands on a Lego solar energy station and a solar-powered three-wheeled vehicle, among other PV-themed Lego kits.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Courtesy of The LEGO Group.
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