The Recycled Plastic Lego Is Dead, But Is It Really a ‘Sustainability Setback?’
by Andrew Gibbs on 09/27/2023 | 4 Minute Read
Growing up, two of my favorite toys were Lego and Hot Wheels. I would spend hours building cities and garages to house my steadily growing collection of cars. I even had carpet that looked like a city, and I would raise ornate buildings of my own devices. Looking back, what really stood out was the feeling that, so long as my skyscrapers didn't topple over, I knew I had created something sturdy, something built to last—even for a miniature city.
On Monday, the Financial Times reported on toymaker Lego backtracking on its promise to make Lego bricks out of 100% recycled PET plastic (rPET). Further, they labeled it a “sustainability setback” after Lego learned that the rPET bricks had a higher carbon emission footprint than the typical Lego brick made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). “Lego has abandoned its highest-profile effort to ditch oil-based plastics from its bricks after finding that its new material led to higher carbon emissions, in a sign of the complex trade-offs companies face in their search for sustainability,” Richard Milne wrote.
But is this really a sustainability setback?
I actually believe it's a bold step in the right direction. And why? Lego refuses to use a material that is even more toxic—as it uses more chemical compounds and energy to produce—to our planet than the one it is supposed to replace. So many companies nowadays are banking on utilizing recycled plastics as the primary solution for sustainability. However, Lego’s announcement and research prove that rPET plastic isn't a viable solution at scale.
Instead, Lego will be sticking to traditional ABS plastic to make it more sustainable gradually over time, as the material gives the bricks their iconic durability and capacity to click together and pull apart. And trust me, no one wants stuck-together Legos. Financial Times reported that Lego instead wants "to improve the carbon footprint over time of ABS” by “gradually incorporating more bio-based and recycled material.”
The brand concluded that after testing hundreds of different materials, there is nothing more sustainable or durable to make a Lego than ABS plastic. In the end, rPET proved softer, and the company needed to add extra materials to give it that extra oomph. What's more, by including those additives, they need more energy to manufacture and dry the new bricks, adding in the Financial Times that "it’s like trying to make a bike out of wood rather than steel." So, for now, they're sticking with what works for them while they "green" the material up as much as possible.
Of course, I have another reason to go to the mat for Lego—it's a toy built to last, not some shoddily made Barbie or GI Joe or Transformer. It's something durable kids can use—again and again—so they can build the stuff of dreams, or at least, in my case, a parking garage to house my many luxury Hot Wheels.
I often use the Lego brick as an example to my package design students as a good example of using plastic as a material. Plastic lasts forever—it's extremely durable, and by design, every Lego brick ever made works with each other. It's not a single-use toy or the cheap nothings a kid finds at the bottom of a Happy Meal. Legos don’t typically end up in the trash can when chiuldren are done with them (though they may end up stuck in an errant foot when kids leave them out). Legos get passed down from generation to generation and are the ultimate circular system, unlike a single-use plastic bottle that will sit for hundreds of years in a landfill.
The conclusion seems to be that the ABS plastic brick is the most ideal material for the Lego brick right now, and in many ways, it is. But it's also far from a perfect solution since it still contains fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. Sadly, Lego's brick dilemma reveals a hard truth in the packaging industry. There's a critical lack of sustainable material innovation beyond plastic or rPET. It's one of the reasons I co-founded PlasticFree. It offers a chance to show designers and creatives that there's another way forward while giving them a tool for the future.
"We have neglected to invent new materials since the birth of plastic," commented Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet and PlasticFree. "Imagine if we’d settled for the carphone, the transistor radio, leeches (although they still work), lobotomies, or Telex. Our mistake began when we believed plastic was the answer to everything. It is indeed a miracle material. Shame on us for making it toxic."
Brands shouldn't use single-use plastic for something like a Coca-Cola or Pepsi bottle. But sometimes you do need it for something that's built to last, like the Lego bricks, or McDonald’s reusable Happy Meal packaging in France.
Lego has pledged to use more sustainable materials by 2032, and according to the Danish toymaker, they have no plans to abandon that promise. It just might take them a little longer to get there.
Which is also kind of the point? Take the time to invest in the right materials—the right substrates—and look at your entire plastic footprint. In Lego's case, they're working on eliminating all of those pesky (and unrecyclable) little plastic baggies that hold bricks, opting instead for FSC-certified papers.
And who knows, maybe down the line, Lego fans like myself will get a genuinely sustainable brick built to last and then some. That's an innovation worth waiting for.