Why It’s Taking so Long for Lego to Make Bricks From Recycled Plastic

Why It’s Taking so Long for Lego to Make Bricks From Recycled Plastic
Image: Lego

Recycling isn’t the end-all solution to our over-consumption of the planet’s resources, and the process comes with its own challenges and drawbacks, but generally, re-using discarded materials and turning them into something useful again is a step in the right direction. Today, Lego revealed its first brick made from recycled plastic; a prototype that won’t be showing up in official sets for a long time, but why is it taking so long to create a recycled Lego brick?

Back in 2018, Lego revealed the first results of its efforts to make its business more environmentally minded with pieces made from polyethylene plastic created from ethanol derived from sugarcane waste instead of oil sucked out of the earth through invasive mining processes. There was a catch, however. The new sugarcane plastic was softer than the rigid material Lego uses for its structural bricks, so to date, it’s only been used to create pieces like plants and trees which have always had a bit of flex to them. Lego promises it’s impossible to tell the difference between old Lego fauna and pieces made with the new environmentally mindful material.

Replacing the plastic used in other Lego pieces has been more of a challenge because it needs to exhibit the same properties as oil-based plastics, including rigidity and durability. The tendency for two Lego pieces to stick together when stacked or attached is known as their clutch power and it comes from both the unique design of the pieces — including the size and shape of the studs on top and the hollow structures on the underside — as well as the material used. Traditionally, this has been a plastic known as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (or ABS, for short) that’s created using petroleum, which is often cited as the reason Lego can be so expensive.

As durable as plastics can be, they don’t last forever, and in 2013, Phillipe Cantin, a Canadian Lego fan and software developer, combined his two passions to create an Arduino-based machine that tested the limits of the clutch power of two classic 2×3 Lego bricks.

The crude-looking machine had a single purpose, it simply connected the two pieces together and then pulled them apart, keeping count of how many times that could happen before the pieces exhibited no resistance when separated. Cantin predicted the pieces could endure over 5,000 separations, but the machine ran for 10 days straight and revealed that it took over 37,000 separations for the pieces to lose clutch power.

It sounds like overkill, but it also represents a strong commitment to quality control. And knowing that the Lego bricks you played with as a kid will still continue to work when passed onto other children is a big reason why the toy has been so popular for so long. It spans generations, and it’s why Lego seemingly has no interest in short-cutting its way to finding a sustainable replacement for the ABS plastic it currently uses and compromising the quality of what is easily the world’s most popular toy.

Image: Lego Image: Lego

But it’s not an impossible goal, as today’s announcement proves. The prototype brick is the result of three years of research and development that involved testing over 250 formulations of polyethylene terephthalate plastic (or PET, for short) derived from discarded and recycled plastic bottles. There are countless products on the market made from PET plastic, but to use it to make plastic building bricks, Lego has had to also create its own custom strengthening additives so that the final material is strong enough to give the pieces sufficient clutch power to hold together.

Lego claims the prototype revealed today “meets several of their quality, safety and play requirements – including clutch power” but it will continue to rigorously test the new recycled bricks for at least another year before making the decision to move on to start testing mass production of the pieces. The company says that a one-litre plastic PET bottle can potentially be used to make ten 2×4 Lego bricks, although it remains to be seen if the recycling process results in pieces that are more affordable than those made using oil-based products.

It’s, unfortunately, going to be quite a few years before recycled Lego bricks start appearing in sets, as in addition to strength requirements, the company will also need to find ways to colour the recycled material to match the vibrant shade the toys are known for. And while they’ve succeeded in making a classic 2×4 brick from the recycled material, it remains to be seen if it’s going to be strong enough for thinner pieces that are more prone to snapping, or if transparent plastic pieces, like windows and windshields, can also be made from PET plastic. As good as it is to see Lego pursuing its environmentally-minded goals, it’s doubtful fans of the toy will want to see the company compromise on quality to reach those goals.