L.Empty bottles instead of acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene granulate – this is how the toy company Lego envisions the raw material for the building blocks of the future. The Danish group presented the prototype for a terminal block on Wednesday, which is no longer made from single-use plastic, but from recycled material. Lego said that a patent has been applied for for the new material mixture. However, further tests are necessary before a market launch.
A new recipe for the blocks with the characteristic knobs on the top would be an epoch-making turning point. Lego has been using the current plastic mixture, known as ABS for short, since 1963. The material has been tested for a long time with regard to the criteria that are important for children’s toys – stability, breaking strength and possible pollutants – which makes the search for an equivalent alternative difficult.
With the ongoing sustainability debate, the Group also sees itself under pressure not to bring any more petroleum-based new plastics into circulation. In the future, the plastic bags for stones in the Lego boxes will be replaced by paper bags, so far there has been no alternative for the blocks. At the corporate headquarters in Billund, Denmark, they now hope to have found it.
Hundreds of material mixes tested
According to the company, 250 recipes with PET plastic from used bottles were tested over three years, plus hundreds of other plastic compositions. Most apparently failed the tests. “The greatest challenge on our sustainability path is to develop new materials that are just as durable, strong and of high quality as our existing bricks,” says Lego environmental manager Tim Brooks.
Sugar cane-based polyethylene, which Lego already uses for flexible parts, was also rejected for the standard bricks. It is “perfect for smaller and softer parts such as trees, branches, leaves and accessories for minifigures”. But: At the moment it is “not suitable for harder, stronger elements”, Lego concludes.
The breaking point of breaking strength
The greatest challenge on the way to building blocks of the future is that bricks cannot break too easily. Traditional Lego bricks can withstand kicks better than drinks bottles. But the mixture of materials for which a patent is pending changes that. Lego speaks of a “tailor-made processing technology that makes the recycled PET harder with special additives”.
Lego leaves open which chemical additives are involved. The group asserts, however, that it only regards a new material as sustainable if recycled materials are used, there is hardly any waste and the chemicals used are themselves sustainable. The food safety authorities from America and the European Union, FDA and EFSA, are said to have approved the new manufacturing processes.
Recycled PET material from suppliers in the United States was used for the prototype. The new process enables a one-liter PET bottle to be turned into up to ten standard Lego bricks with two by four knobs on the top, explains the company. “With this prototype, we can show the progress that we are making,” says manager Brooks.
But “it will take some time” until the new bricks get into children’s hands – Lego leaves open the market launch. Before that, further tests are necessary. In just over a year, they want to decide whether to start pilot production. “There is still a long way to go, but we are satisfied with the progress we are making”; says manager Brooks. “Even if it takes a while before children play with stones made from recycled plastic, they should already know that we are working on them.”