LEGO Bricks: Lingering in the Oceans for Centuries

BuzzOnEarth is an online publication on environmental sustainability and human wellness, focused on creating positive impact. BoE aims to bridge the knowledge gap and act as a catalyst in accelerating sustainable development.

If you are reading this blog, there is a high probability that you must have come across Lego bricks at least once. Either you must have played with them as kids OR are planning to buy some for your kids or your grandkids OR simply love legos because they are like that!

It isn’t uncommon either to have small lego pieces being found suddenly even after you had stored them off a good while ago.

Can’t really help it! They are just so small that it is easy to miss out on one piece or two!

Plus, the durability of Legos- simply unparalleled. The same lego set (if all its pieces remain intact) can be passed on to generations. The same set, across generations and the bricks look still as new as the day 1.

After all, it is not for nothing that this Danish company has become such a huge favourite, not just with kids but also their parents!

Where did it all start?

It all started when some lego bricks washed up on the coastlines of Southwest England. The pristine condition of the bricks was enough to raise the curiosity of the researchers at the University of Plymouth. 

Detailed research was hence done and it was found that lego bricks have a life of 100 to 1300 years even when they are in the seawater. To confirm this finding further, the researchers collaborated with Rame Peninsula Beach Care and the Lego Lost at Sea Project. Thousands of washed up pieces of Lego bricks and other plastics were then analysed. The study used 50 pieces of weathered Lego made out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene as a sample to reach to a conclusion.

Upon analysis with an X-Rary fluorescence spectrometer, the age and chemical composition of these bricks were determined. As a final step, these bricks were paired with unweathered sets purchased in the 1970s and 80s. 

To everyone’s surprise, these bricks aren’t really different from their older counterparts. Despite being in the water for however long, they were still as good as new.

Another, an even bigger challenge came in the form of the larger lego bricks which had slightly chipped away resulting in leaving more microplastics in the aquatic ecosystem.*

In the words of Dr Andrew Turner, Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences at Cornwall,

Lego is one of the most popular children’s toys in history and part of its appeal has always been its durability.  It is specifically designed to be played with and handled, so it may not be especially surprising that despite potentially being in the sea for decades, it isn’t significantly worn down. However, the full extent of its durability was even a surprise to us. The pieces we tested had smoothed and discoloured, with some of the structures having fractured and fragmented, suggesting that as well as pieces remaining intact, they might also break down into microplastics. It once again emphasises the importance of people disposing of used items properly to ensure they do not pose potential problems for the environment.”

The Steps that lego is Taking!

It will be wrong to say that Lego isn’t doing anything at all. The firm has announced plans to make tiny plastic trees and bushes for its playsets using ethanol extracted from Brazilian sugarcane. It is a good start no doubt but given the fact that these two articles form less than 2% of overall Lego productions, the impact will be limited at best. However, even if less than 2%, these products will have significantly lesser carbon footprints than conventional plastic. Overgrowth of sugarcane can put increased pressure on the farms but that is nothing that can not be handled.

We feel, that even though it is a small not so significant step, this can pave the way for something good. Imagine Lego building upon this technology and implementing it across its products. That will be something huge for sure and given how the Danish firm has been working on the development, the future may actually be good!

What Next?

As mentioned above, Lego is trying to use more and more sustainable resources for making its products eco-friendly. While it will be tough for smaller businesses to replicate such an initiative, the onus now lies on the Governments and the respective sustainable agencies to work in this field.

Either the norms can be relaxed or tax support is provided to these manufacturers. Separate Government aided budgets can be kept to support the organisations which are trying to innovate in this domain.

As the end-users, we can act responsibly too. There is no dearth of wooden or cotton/cloth-based toys and games. Some of them are pretty reasonable too. It is thus important that we prefer them over the plastic ones and not give in to the unnecessary consumerism trends. Probably, our sustainable way of purchasing will become a trend in itself!

Finally, if we have to talk about online petitions or marches or even vandalising properties to put the point across; We feel that coercion can never be the reason behind bringing any sustainable change. Anything sustainable happens only when each of the stakeholders feels responsible for bringing the change. 

This case of minimising plastic use will be no different either!

* The study, Weathering and persistence of plastic in the marine environment: Lessons from Lego, is published in Environmental Pollution.

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