Lego will spend 1 billion Danish kroner — about $185.4 million Cdn — over the next 15 years trying to develop a building material more environmentally sustainable than plastic for its ubiquitous bricks.

The Danish toy giant said Tuesday it will hire more than 100 people for the initiative by the end of next year, based at its headquarters in Billund, Denmark.

"This is a major step for the Lego Group on our way towards achieving our 2030 ambition on sustainable materials," Lego president Jørgen Vig Knudstorp said in a statement. 

The company has already overhauled its packaging to make it more environmentally friendly, and its facilities use wind power and other renewable resources for energy whenever possible.

"Now we are accelerating our focus on materials," Knudstorp said.

Lego shortage

Lego says a new, sustainable material must have an ever-lighter footprint than the material it replaces across key environmental and social impact areas. (The Canadian Press)

Changing its materials is an especially large problem for Lego. It earned its reputation in large part because of its standardization — customers can be confident that a Lego brick made decades ago will stick with one made today, yet come apart on command in the hands of a child.

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene

"Lego believes a new sustainable material must have an ever-lighter footprint than the material it replaces across key environmental and social impact areas such as fossil resource use, human rights and climate change," the company said in a statement.

The company cranks out more than five million Lego bricks every hour, using a plastic known as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, which is renowned for its impact resistance and ability to hold its shape under various conditions.

It's not the first time the company has sought out an alternative to plastic. In February 2014, a Lego executive said in an interview with Plastics News it was looking into finding a more sustainable resin for its products.

"I need to find a material that is just as good as this one," Allan Rasmussen said

"I need to find a material that will be just as good in 50 years, because these are passed down from generation to generation."

Nor is it the first time the company has overhauled its record on social and environmental issues. In 2013, the company inked a deal with the World Wildlife Fund to improve its sustainability policies. And last year, Lego cut its longstanding ties with oil company Shell after environmental action group Greenpeace protested the latter's drilling practices in the Arctic.