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332: Biodegradable toy bricks

Problem:

In 1919, the rubber shoe heel manufacturer Premo in Petersfield, England produced Minibrix, made of hard rubber which had the ability to deform under pressure to allow firm interlocking of studs and holes.

Then in 1949 Ole Kirk Christiansen of the LEGO factory in Billund, Denmark began producing plastic toys which included interlocking bricks of different colors.

Available in 53 different colours, more than 400 billion LEGO bricks have been produced in seventy years, with 19 billion LEGO elements produced every year. 2.16 million LEGO elements molded every hour, or 36,000 per minute.

This makes LEGO the world’s biggest toymaker. Since 1963, LEGO bricks have been made with a strong, oil-based plastic known as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. While boxes of LEGO are usually handed down in families are passed on, a proportion end up in landfills.

Solution:

Biodegradable bricks
For centuries, off cuts left on the woodworker’s bench had been used by their children to balance on top of each other. In 1837, Friedrich Fröbel built specific wooden building blocks to teach the alphabet and numbers for use in his preschool kindergartens.

In 2012 LEGO pledged to find and start using sustainable alternatives to its raw materials by 2030. Realizing the scale of the challenge, it later invested US$150 million to hire almost one hundred scientists and fund research and development.

During seven years, LEGO kept hitting brick walls. They tried making pieces from corn, but they were too soft. Its wheat-based bricks did not absorb color evenly or have the requisite shine. Bricks made from other materials proved too hard to pull apart, broke or had what executives call “creep,” when bricks lose their grip and collapse. Over 200 combinations were tested.

In August 2018, LEGO launched 25 various brick shapes, derived from sugar cane grown in Brazil, colored green and shaped such as leaves, bushes and trees. Confident, LEGO next launched a 200-piece tree house kit again in ethanol-based bioplastic. The search goes on for an improved version to replace their traditional acrylonitrile butadiene styrene polymer.

In 2019 Lego launched a 12-ounce build-on brick mug, made of BPA-free plastic, coming in eight colors.

Discover Solution 333: Plastic from waste CO₂

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