I've noticed that the mainstream media has a tough time reporting on alternative plastics materials and getting the details correct. The point was driven home last month, after Lego A/S announced it was spending about $150 million to step up its research to find a material that it considers more sustainable.
The Danish toymaker didn't say it wants to get rid of plastics. But you won't get that point from reading the headlines on most of the news stories:
• Huffington Post: “Lego Saying ‘No' To Plastic, Invests Millions Into Search For ‘Sustainable' Material.”
• Geekwire: “Say goodbye to plastic Legos: Company looking for sustainable option.”
• NBC News: “No More Plastic Legos? Company Searches for ‘Sustainable' Material.”
• Consumerist: “Lego Investing $150M To Develop Sustainable Non-Plastic Materials For Brick-Making.”
• Time: “Lego Wants to Replace Plastic Blocks With Sustainable Materials.”
The Time story also erroneously said that Lego was investing $1 billion in the effort, which I thought was a major error. I tried to contact both the reporter and the magazine on Twitter, informing them of the mistake, but neither responded. Meanwhile, their error was picked up by dozens of other websites. Oops.
• Science Alert: “Lego to kill off plastic bricks in a move to sustainable materials.”
• CBS News: “Going green, Lego looks to ditch plastic.”
That CBS story wasn't too bad, actually, although maybe I'm biased because it quoted, and extensively borrowed, from our Plastics News report. But the headline … nope, they missed the point.
I could point to dozens, if not hundreds, more. Many consumers were definitely left with the impression that Lego plans to get rid of plastics.
From the reaction on Twitter, where I saw many people applauding the move, I think this may be a significant problem.
What happens if Lego announces that it's come up with a bio-based plastic that's nearly identical to the conventional ABS it's been using since the 1960s? Will consumers feel they were misled? After all, a bio-based plastic isn't going to be any more biodegradable or recyclable than ABS. The difference will likely be the carbon footprint of the product — and that may be too fine a point for consumers to comprehend.
Plastics readers can be misled about bioplastics developments too. A few years ago, at the K show in Düsseldorf, Germany, one exhibiting company had a massive attention-getting poster of a woman with an exasperated look, holding her head in both hands, with the caption: “Still using plastic?” It was kind of an odd message for an international plastics show. But the company wasn't selling paper or glass, it was touting a bioplastic version of a thermoplastic elastomer compound.
I understand that all the news reporters and copy editors who wrote the Lego coverage last month were trying to digest a fairly technical story, and have it make sense to their average reader. They don't have the advantage we do at Plastics News, we can write “Toymaker wants sustainable material to replace ABS,” without having to explain to our readers what “sustainable” and “ABS” are.
The truth is that chemists can create polymers out of a wide variety of materials. So we've been seeing stories for years about people creating plastics from corn, banana peels, soybeans, shrimp shells, grass, mushrooms and just about anything else that has carbon and hydrogen atoms that can be manipulated to form chains. Sometimes they call these materials plastics, sometimes they say it's an alternative to plastics. But the difference isn't so much with the material, it's with the feedstock.
For the most part, plastics processors don't care where the material came from. They're willing to use conventional plastics, bioplastics or recycled plastics — whatever their customers and, ultimately, consumers want.
If people want to buy Legos made from corn, then Lego will make billions of corn-based Legos. But let's get this straight now — they'll still be plastic.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Contact him @donloepp.