Prototype recycled Lego bricks in the lab.
While legions of fans already consider the iconic Lego bricks objects of perfection, the company is preparing an upgrade that would maintain the bricks' special locking prowess and improve their sustainability performance.
This week, the Lego Group introduced a prototype brick made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic used to make beverage bottles.
“We are super excited about this breakthrough,” said Tim Brooks, vice president of environmental responsibility at the Lego Group in a prepared statement. “The biggest challenge on our sustainability journey is rethinking and innovating new materials that are as durable, strong and high quality as our existing bricks – and fit with Lego elements made over the past 60 years. With this prototype we’re able to showcase the progress we’re making.”
Company researchers spent the past three years testing and retesting more than 250 versions of PET materials and other types of plastic to find one to make the perfect brick. The results are bricks that meet what Lego says meet both safety and play requirements, such as that coveted clutch power, which allows the bricks to solidly lock together, according to the company.
The recycled PET that is the base of these bricks comes from suppliers that adhere to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) protocols for safety and quality. The PET material has been combined with additives to make it more durable.
A one-liter plastic PET bottle provides approximately enough material for 10 Lego bricks with two bumps across and four lengthwise. About 60 billion Lego bricks are produced each year; the world is home to more than 400 billion Lego bricks.
New materials would be a big change for the long-time familiar product. For almost 60 years, a plastic called ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) has been used to make the majority of Lego pieces. ABS provides Lego bricks with their easily-recognizable colors, shine and famous locking ability.
Reworking its brick formula is one aspect of Lego Group’s ongoing sustainability efforts. The company revealed a three-year plan in 2020 to spend up to $400 million on social responsibility and sustainability programs. By 2022, manufacturing operations are expected to be carbon neutral. The company also has its sights on converting all of its packaging to sustainable materials by the time 2025 ends; last year plans were announced to start removing single-use plastic from all boxes. And three years ago, LEGO Group began making accessory pieces from bio-polyethylene (bio-PE), developed from sustainably- sourced sugarcane. bio-PE is used for LEGO trees, branches and accessories for mini-figures.
Existing Lego sets also can get an extended life through the Replay program, which helps owners pass on their used bricks. Donors put their bricks in a box and print out a free shipping label, and put the box in the mail. Lego Group is collaborating with organizations such as Teach for America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston to pass the bricks on to new eager builders.
Recycled plastic bricks are still a long way from hitting the shelves, however. Another round of tests on the new material could take up to a year, the company said. After further assessments, Lego’s team of researchers will decide whether to launch pilot bricks.
“We know kids care about the environment and want us to make our products more sustainable,” noted Lego’s Brooks. “We’re committed to playing our part in building a sustainable future for generations of children. We want our products to have a positive impact on the planet, not just with the play they inspire, but also with the materials we use. We still have a long way to go on our journey but are pleased with the progress we’re making.”
Image credit: Ryan Quintal/Unsplash and Lego
Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT. Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.