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Lego just figured out how to build its specialized bricks out of recycled plastic

A single one-liter bottle can be recycled into material for around 10 standard two-by-four Lego bricks.

Lego just figured out how to build its specialized bricks out of recycled plastic
[Photo: Lego]
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Inside a lab in Billund, Denmark, down the road from a Lego factory that makes around 100 million bricks and other toy pieces every day, dozens of materials scientists and engineers are working on one of Lego’s biggest challenges—how to make its toys without oil-based plastic.

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By 2030, the company aims to make its signature bricks from recycled or renewable materials that can also be fully recycled. But it’s not as simple as just sourcing recycled plastic for its factory.

“For us, the challenge comes from needing materials that are durable and safe enough to be handled by children day in, day out, and can be molded to the accuracy of a hair width to ensure bricks produced today fit with those made over 60 years ago,” says Tim Brooks, vice president of environmental responsibility at the Lego Group. “Most existing recycled materials don’t meet these criteria. We either can’t use them or need to modify the material to ensure it fits the safety and quality requirements for LEGO products—essentially, we need to find entirely new materials for our products.”

[Photo: Lego]
Today, Lego announced some progress: After years of testing more than 250 different formulations of PET, the type of plastic commonly used in water bottles, the team now has a recycled PET prototype that performs well. After more testing and tweaking, it could eventually be used in production.

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A single one-liter bottle can be recycled into material for around 10 standard two-by-four Lego bricks, which are currently made from another type of plastic called ABS. If the process stopped there, the bricks wouldn’t meet Lego’s quality standards. But the team designed a new formulation that makes recycled PET stronger so it’s more durable. The designers also had to make sure the material had the right “clutch power”—meaning it snaps together well and pulls apart easily. It can’t change shape over time, even if it sits in a hot car. The material has to have an even color when it’s made and the right shine. The bricks even have to have a particular sound. “There’s a lot of things we’re trying to replicate,” says Brooks. The source of the recycled material also had to be traceable to ensure it’s not contaminated, so the company turned to food-grade PET.

[Photo: Lego]
The team will continue to test the new material for at least a year before deciding whether to begin pilot production. They’ll also continue testing other materials, both for toys and for the company’s packaging; by 2025, Lego plans to phase out single-use plastic in packages. On any given day, around 150 people in the lab run tests to see what it takes to break, puncture, or melt various materials; how the material performs in machines pumping out a high volume of bricks; and how it performs in all of the company’s 3,000 shapes. The material also has to work well with other materials, like the plant-based plastic Lego has used for a handful of pieces. (Plant-based plastic is only used for softer pieces, and can’t be used for hard bricks, at least in its current formulation.)

[Photo: Lego]
The new material has one challenge—because of the change in the formulation to make it more durable, it can’t be recycled like regular PET. But new advanced recycling technologies that break down plastic differently could be able process it. Lego’s aim is for its bricks to stay in use as long as possible, and in one program, it asks customers to send back old toys for donation to other children. The bricks are durable enough to last for decades, so the company can’t rely on old Legos to provide enough material to supply its factory. But there is a large supply of recycled PET.

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A switch to recycled plastic can help with the larger challenge of plastic waste, and it can also help reduce the company’s carbon footprint. Materials are responsible for nearly a third of Lego’s greenhouse gas emissions, and recycled materials have a 70% lower emissions than conventional materials. “Not only is it good to keep that plastic out of landfills and out of nature, it’s also a good climate footprint,” Brooks says.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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