China's BanBao to begin selling bioplastic toy blocks

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Photo by BanBao China's BanBao will begin selling the sustainable, bio-based building blocks later this year.

Chinese toy company BanBao plans to beat Lego in the introduction of bioplastic children's building blocks.

BanBao's new building blocks will be produced by Biopromotions of Venlo, the Netherlands, which helped develop the blocks. Biopromotions specializes in making promotional items such as water bottles, ice scrapers and memo pad holders from biodegradable and bio-based plastics and other materials, such as potato starch.

Filo Import of Bois-des-Filion, Quebec, will start distributing the new blocks in North America in June, a few months before they will appear on store shelves, according to Filo president Thierry Serruya.

"The response has been phenomenal," Serruya said in a phone interview. The blocks were introduced at the Toy Fair in New York in February. Serruya said his company has exclusive distribution rights in North America.

Lego caused a mighty stir two years ago when it announced it was looking at sustainable alternatives to the ABS resin it has used to make Lego blocks. The company earmarked about 1 billion Danish krone (€134m) to develop new blocks by 2030 and said it was open to looking at all options, not just bio-based plastics.

BanBao's new sustainable block will be 95% "green" polyethylene derived from sugarcane residue in Brazil, Serruya said. The other 5% is a secret ingredient and a key to patents BanBao plans to secure.

Filo is an import/export company that has been distributing conventional children's blocks and other toys sold by BanBao, as well as toys and games developed by other international companies. Serruya said Filo has been distributing about 300 BanBao stock-keeping units.

BanBao has relied on ABS and polypropylene to make its conventional blocks and related toys. The new bio-based blocks will contain no oil-based chemicals, said Steven van Bommel, BanBao Europe CEO, in a Jan. 19 news release. The packaging, stickers, instruction and glues will also be 100% bio-based.

"The quality of the [new] building blocks has amazed us, the blocks perfectly fit our non-bio-based building blocks and those of the competition," Van Bommel stated. "Even the price can compete against the competition."

Lego did not comment on BanBao's upcoming blocks but a spokesman pointed to Lego's efforts to make sustainable blocks.

"We are exploring a wide range of alternative materials and have begun producing prototype Lego bricks using sustainable materials," said Kasper Balleby Hansen in an email.

"We make more than 3,500 different types of elements and sell more than 70 billion a year, so it's a complex but exciting challenge."

"BanBao was looking for an alternative 'green' raw material for making their toy bricks," explained Biopromotions CEO Robert de Waal in a news release. "Soon they came into contact with us. Our knowledge has grown enormously over the years and we accepted the challenge."

BanBao's new entrants will comprise more than 13 toy boxes to be available in stores in autumn of 2017. One type, a larger block, is suited to toddlers, the other is a standard size block suited to children 5 years old and older.

BanBao was sued by Lego in 2011 over the packaging it used for its blocks, alleging it was confusing consumers. The two rivals settled that issue in 2012. Several other competitors have met Lego in courts since the 1990s. Currently, Lego has a civil action underway in China against the producer and distributor of Lepin branded construction toys. That case could be heard in autumn of 2017. In the meantime Lepin blocks are not legally barred from the marketplace.

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