LEGO and its long-lasting legacy—our oceans

Image Credit: Pixabay Licence: eak_kkk

Vanshika Dhyani identifies the disadvantages of LEGO’s take on plastic, even the plant-based one, and highlights the importance of going to war against plastic.

In the year 1999, LEGO was named ‘Toy of the Century’ by Forbes Magazine for “its educational value, universal appeal and enduring popularity." What began as a prototype for smaller projects in a carpentry workshop during the Great Depression has now emerged as a multi-billion dollar company. Although LEGO’s popularity has only grown over the decades, the same cannot be said for its universal appeal, with climate activists and environmental organizations like Greenpeace calling on LEGO for its hostile environmental practices. 

Founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, LEGO changed the course of history when it took a modern and innovative approach to physics and architecture and started manufacturing durable bricks that could be assembled together even if the two were moulded decades apart. Be as it may, this durability is now at the forefront of our climate crisis and calls for a modern and innovative approach to climate action.

In a new study conducted by the University of Plymouth, fifty LEGO bricks found washed up by the coastlines of South West England were used as specimens. Each brick was cleaned and weighed, its chemical composition was deduced using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer and its age was calculated. Then, the weathered LEGO  bricks—that had been altered by water, sand and salt — were compared with unused bricks from LEGO playsets of the 70s and the 80s. The study found that the classic LEGO bricks, made out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene ABS— a thermoplastic polymer since 1963, could take anywhere from a hundred to thirteen hundred years to disintegrate in the oceans.

Upon entering the oceans, plastic breaks into finer particles called microplastics that can assimilate toxic waste due to prolonged exposure to seawater. Equaling the size of a sesame seed, they are often mistaken as food by marine life that enters their bloodstream with chemicals absorbed by the debris.

In their ecosystem, marine life interacts with plastic by ingesting and choking on small bits. Plastic is made from carcinogenic substances that can lead to complications in both humans and animals. When these substances enter the digestive systems of marine organisms they become a part of the consumer-resource system—the food web—and eventually reach the predator and cause health problems. 

Microplastic particles found in fishes from the lower trophic verify that plastic pollution has infiltrated our seabed. Scientists estimate 14.4 million tonnes of microplastics are occupying the bottom of the sea.

Although the Lego Group's motto is "only the best is good enough,” their standpoint, when it comes to the climate crisis, begs to differ.  More and more companies dabble with the idea of going green to appeal to a growing number of environmentally conscious individuals. They do this by opting for greener packaging options. However, unlike other companies LEGO’s petroleum-based plastics aren’t just the outer covering of their most popular products, they are the product.

To meet the ever-growing demand for sustainable alternatives, LEGO has come up with a plant-based substitute sourced from sugarcane to make miniature trees and bushes. These small and seemingly harmless pieces of polyethene are bendy and hard-wearing, but they do eventually end up in landfills and oceans. It is important to understand that bioplastics, although biodegradable, are still plastics. They take years to decompose, are toxic to ecosystems and deplete the ozone layer. Worst of all, if not left to biodegrade in an industrial compost with ample oxygen, they will start releasing Methane—a gas that has 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

The new LEGO bioplastics may not be 100% environment friendly; however, they are a step in the right direction. Sustainable development is not easy and requires resources and strategy along with time and effort. LEGO is taking measures to foster green changes to promote a sustainable model. The company has pledged: 'to make all core LEGO products from sustainable materials by 2030' and expects to replace its packaging with renewable/recycled materials by 2025. It has launched a Zero Waste campaign to ensure that waste from  LEGO amenities doesn't end up in landfills.

Most major firms are taking green initiatives. Multinational beverage corporation Coca-Cola has pledged 'to recycle a used bottle or can for every one the company sells by 2030.' Steve Jobs’s brainchild— Apple, has announced its plans of investing an estimated $300 million into the China Clean Energy Fund, over four years. Apple's manufacturing hub in China operates its power plants on coal. Factories operating on such a large scale are directly responsible for the country's prevailing polluted environmental conditions. Similarly, Internet-related service provider Google is also taking steps towards climate action. The newest Google  Maps upgrade will navigate the user through eco-friendly routes with a minimum time-cost trade-off. The vehicle's fuel consumption will be estimated. And a journey will be recommended taking into account traffic congestion, slopes/inclines, and other geographical features to compare estimated carbon emissions.

LEGO's legacy lives in our oceans, how Apple's does in our air. It is time for corporations to consider their ethical impact and contrast sustainability systems to optimize the supply chain and reduce their carbon footprint. Investing in renewable energy sources will help them decrease the greenhouse effect. 

To tackle the problem with microplastics, our sea of plastic has to become a hotspot for scientific research and innovation. Meanwhile, reducing, reusing and recycling plastic should be the top priority of big corporations, international establishments, governments organisations and research institutions. Their collaboration in re-writing environmental policies, restructuring waste management projects and redesigning solutions for disposing of plastics will appropriately address the concern about marine plastics.