Bricks, bricks, and more bricks. LEGO produces about 36 billion of its iconic bricks, plates, and tiles every year. Now after years of making this blockbuster construction toy, LEGO is developing a completely sustainable product.
Sustainability refers to making goods without depleting or destroying resources. Since 1963, LEGO has used a plastic called ABS. ABS makes LEGOs colorful, sturdy, and rigid. (If you’ve ever trodden on one barefoot, you know this!) But ABS comes from oil, a non-sustainable resource.
With over 100,000 tons of plastic pumping out of their factories annually, LEGO toymakers wanted to make bricks that didn’t contribute to damage to the planet. That’s a positive impulse. Humans are meant to be good stewards of creation—and caring for natural resources like oil and trees and air glorifies God while it serves humanity and other creatures too. By 2030, LEGO hopes to use sustainable materials in all its primary products and packaging.
After two years of experiments, LEGO researchers created a 98% plant-based, sustainable form of polyethylene (PE), the world’s most common type of plastic. (Think milk jugs, grocery bags, and bottle caps.)
The PE product was a triumph—thanks mostly to its main ingredient: sugarcane. Cane grows at the same rate—or faster—than LEGO can use it. But the sweet new product proved too flexible to hold much weight.
Undeterred, LEGO engineers used the sustainable sugar-bricks for less vital pieces, like leaves or flowers. But those comprise only about two percent of LEGO products. To make a difference, researchers needed to keep working.
Tim Brooks is a vice president at LEGO. He says bricks require “clutch power.” That is, they must hold together well. Too flexible or too “shrinkable” bricks won’t stay put.
LEGO scientists experimented with PET, another type of plastic. They used recycled plastic bottles as a sustainable source of material.
Scientists ran the PET bricks through rigorous tests. They came close to LEGO’s ABS bricks. After some more tweaks to color and clutch, the testing to determine which bricks to change over to PET will begin.
Today, LEGO makes about 3,500 different pieces. LEGO executives think changing out the most popular brick—the two dot by four dot—will offer the biggest change for the environment.
According to Brooks, the perfect sustainable brick is probably a few years away. But “experimentation and failing is an important part of learning and innovation,” he says. He tells Wired UK that LEGO is working on a “secret sauce” to make PET bricks work like ABS ones. “Just as kids build, unbuild, and rebuild with LEGO bricks at home, we’re doing the same in our lab.”