LEGO has developed an innovative new way of tackling the billions of plastic beverage bottles that are produced and discarded every year.
"We know kids care about the environment and want us to make our products more sustainable," Tim Brooks, Vice President of Environmental Responsibility at the LEGO Group, said in a company press release. "Even though it will be a while before they will be able to play with bricks made from recycled plastic, we want to let kids know we're working on it and bring them along on the journey with us. Experimentation and failing is an important part of learning and innovation. Just as kids build, unbuild, and rebuild with LEGO bricks at home, we're doing the same in our lab."
The most common type of plastic used in making single-use bottles and containers is known as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. If you've bought a bottle of pop, water, or juice, or if you've picked up peanut butter, salad dressing, cooking oil, mouthwash, or a number of other products from the grocery store that came in a transparent plastic bottle, the container was very likely made from PET plastic. Unlike some other forms of plastic that are troublesome for recycling facilities, PET plastic is fully recyclable. Often it is melted down and cut into 'chips' that are then used to make other products, including being remade into new plastic bottles.
The LEGO Group has found a new use for recycled PET plastic. The company just unveiled a new prototype brick made from recycled plastic bottles.
A PET plastic bottle is melted down and cut into chips, and then molded into prototype LEGO bricks. Credit: The LEGO Group
"We are super excited about this breakthrough," Brooks said. "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."
The LEGO Group has been working for years to become more sustainable. To reach their goals, the company now generates renewable energy both on-site and off, with their energy production more than offsetting what they consume. In 2018, they began making their softer elements — those pieces molded into the shapes of trees and plants — out of plastic derived from sugar cane. Since 2019, their "LEGO Replay" program has allowed people to donate their bricks to children in need, to keep them from being thrown out. As of 2020, they began replacing single-use plastic bags — both at their stores and in their boxes — with paper bags. All of this in an effort to reach their goal of producing all of their products from sustainable materials by 2030.
This new prototype brick is the next step in their plan.
According to The LEGO Group, they spent the past three years testing over 250 different variations of PET plastics in order to find one that would produce bricks of the same quality as those they currently produce for sale.
On average, they said, a one-litre bottle made from PET plastic can be converted into ten 2 x 4 LEGO bricks.
Prototype 2 x 4 bricks roll off the LEGO assembly line. Credit: The LEGO Group
Although the company says that the prototype PET bricks are doing very well in testing, they are not quite ready to be included in sets for sale. More testing is required, and they are currently working on finding a way to add colour to the bricks, which are currently a uniform off-white.
"We're committed to playing our part in building a sustainable future for generations of children," Brooks said. "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."
So, if The LEGO Group were to begin producing all of their plastic bricks and pieces from recycled PET plastic, how many bottles would this, realistically, consume?
According to the company, they sell an estimated 70 billion of their plastic "elements" each year. If they can perfect their process for turning PET bottles into these elements, every 10 pieces will use up one 1-litre PET bottle. The vast majority of plastic bottles sold are half that size (~500ml or 16 fl oz), so that would consume roughly 14 billion recycled bottles every year.
From their most recent estimate, Euromonitor International stated that worldwide plastic bottle production would reach 583.3 billion units by 2021.
Still, this represents one company's efforts to be sustainable. If more companies adopted LEGO's methods to reuse PET plastic, this would increase the number of bottles that could be used up, keeping them out of landfills and our oceans.