Lego, a toy company everyone knows and loves. For 87 years, this special toy has provided endless hours of entertainment for children, as well as some pain to the feet of parents, grandparents, and babysitters.
More than 400 billion Lego bricks have been produced since 1958, around 19 billion Legos are produced every year, and 36,000 are molded every minute. This equates to around 62 Lego bricks for every one person of Earth’s population!
Lego is currently made from an oil-based plastic, known as ABS which is incredibly durable, so durable in fact, that Lego said tests conducted at their factory show no bricks have ever decomposed or released chemical substances (Gizmodo, 2008). However, the crazy durability of these bricks is actually quite concerning from an environmental standpoint. Recycling Lego pieces is nearly impossible as most recycling centers do not accept ABS plastic.
In 2018 the Brittish government released a report which found that 70% of the ocean’s garbage was non-degradable plastic. National Geographic estimates eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year and in 2016. Lego responded to this report by committing to find a renewable replacement for their plastic pieces by the year 2030. Why can’t that renewable source be hemp?
So far Lego has spent around $155 million in its search for the next new material with a team of over 100 employees. In 2018, Lego released a range of plant-themed products manufactured from sugarcane, which has a far less negative impact on the environment than the oil-based plastic. Although this sugar bioplastic is better, it still requires vast amounts of pesticides and fertilizers to grow the sugarcane. Additionally, if left in landfills and deprived of oxygen, bioplastics release methane, a greenhouse gas worse than carbon dioxide, which is a big problem for our ozone layer.
Is Hemp The Answer?
Hemp has been used to produce fuel, paper, textiles, health food, protein formulas, and even biodegradable (but durable!) plastics.
Hemp is a sustainable plant that only takes four months to mature, requiring little space to grow, and minimal water and sunlight. This plant is incredibly tough and grows in most regions (except hard desert or mountain conditions). Additionally, hemp is pest resistant, resulting in very low amounts of pesticides being used (if at all). The hemp plant even repairs the soil in which it is grown and has been shown to remove toxic metals and radioactive materials from the disaster zone in Chernobyl.
Hemp can be processed into biodegradable plastic that is stronger than fiberglass, which Henry Ford used for his car doors and bumpers back in the ‘40s before hemp was demonized. This super-strong hemp plastic is made from the naturally occurring polymer, cellulose. This organic compound is found within the hemp stalk. Hemp has a high cellulose content, around 80% (sugarcane only possesses around 40%), which makes it an even better choice for the Lego manufacturing process.
Companies Already Making a Shift
HempPlastic, a US-based company that specializes in manufacturing green choice Hemp-based plastic alternatives has created a HempABS. According to their website, this is a “material for high impact, ultra-strong products [including] parts, toys, packaging.” Impressively, this product, “[c]an be made to meet FDA standards for food, pharmaceuticals and agricultural products” (HempPlastic, 2019).
The Take Away
It is clear that there are more sustainable raw material sources for these traditional and timeless toys moving forward. Consumers are beginning to make environmentally conscious choices, as to what toys they are purchasing for their children. It is for this reason that hemp-based products are becoming more acceptable as building materials.
We hope that the cost-effective and environmentally friendly hemp-based bioplastics will become the next generation of not only Lego bricks but other plastic toys. This would be an incredible win for toy-companies, hemp farmers, and our environment!