Lego The makers of LEGO bricks have committed to going sustainable by 2030. Is synthetic biology the right tool for manufacturing 19 million bioplastic LEGO bricks each year? Image: LEGO Group
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Four Ways Synthetic Biology Can Help LEGO Bricks Go Green

If you braved Black Friday or ventured online for Cyber Monday, you might be one of a growing number of shoppers seeking sustainable products. Luckily, some of the world’s favorite manufacturers are proactively decreasing their carbon footprint. Toy giant LEGO Group is among them.

Back in 2015, it announced a $1 billion initiative to make its products entirely sustainable by 2030.

Since 1963, LEGO has been using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene — or ABS — to make its bricks. ABS is sturdy, glossy, and can incorporate vibrant color pigments. ABS high-performance characteristics assure LEGO bricks manufactured today will deliver the satisfying “click” even when combined with Lego bricks from 10, 20, even 50 years ago.

But here’s the problem: ABS is manufactured from petroleum.

“Greening” LEGO bricks is a challenge

“The advanced, precision engineering required to manufacture the iconic LEGO is not easily amenable to a new polymer,” said Molly Morse, president and founder of Mango Materials.

“The main technical challenge is developing materials that have the same physical properties such as stiffness, friction, and shine,” said Matt Whitby, Environmental Engagement Manager of LEGO Group. “And perhaps most importantly, the bricks need ‘clutch power’, the flexibility that enables bricks to be put together and taken apart by a child.” Any LEGO brick of the future must meet these high technical requirements, continue to lead in safety standards, and be produced from sustainable sources, he said.

“The advanced, precision engineering required to manufacture the iconic LEGO is not easily amenable to a new polymer,” said Molly Morse, president and founder of Mango Materials.

“The main technical challenge is developing materials that have the same physical properties such as stiffness, friction, and shine,” said Matt Whitby, Environmental Engagement Manager of LEGO Group. “And perhaps most importantly, the bricks need ‘clutch power’, the flexibility that enables bricks to be put together and taken apart by a child.” Any LEGO brick of the future must meet these high technical requirements, continue to lead in safety standards, and be produced from sustainable sources, he said.

LEGO Group has done a great job with their sustainability efforts. The Danish company partners with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), promotes global action on climate change, and has reduced its CO2 emissions in manufacturing and supply chain operations. It also has made significant investments in wind power to balance the company’s energy use with renewable energy.

LEGO Group further set a goal to make their packaging 100% sustainable by 2025. And, as mentioned above, the company’s goal is to make LEGO products entirely sustainable by 2030.

For 2019, LEGO introduced a new treehouse kit made with a new polyethylene produced from sustainably sourced sugar cane.

“All sets with LEGO trees, leaves and bushes in our LEGO sets – 80 different elements – are now made from plant-based plastic,” said Whitby. The plastic is made with polyethylene made from sugarcane that is sourced sustainably with guidance from WWF. “This small change is the first important step of many on our journey towards using all sustainable materials by 2030.”

But what about the other 19 million LEGO bricks it produces every year?

I asked Morse what she thought. Her company manufactures a naturally occurring biopolymer by feeding bacteria methane produced at a waste-water treatment plant. Mango’s biopolymer is economically competitive with conventional petroleum-based plastics.

“LEGO Group’s best route toward new high-performance materials might be finding new ways to manufacture the resin they’re currently using,” says Morse.

Brainstorming with Morse, we came up with the following ideas to help LEGO Group reach its 2030 goals. Here we present our solutions, from easiest to most challenging:

  1. Replace packaging with biopolymers. LEGO Group set a goal to make their packaging 100% sustainable by 2025. “This should be relatively easy,” says Morse. “Forest-friendly certified recycled cardboard is widely available, and companies like Mango are creating materials that will increasingly find their way into packaging.” Another company creating sustainable packaging is Ecovative, which uses mycelium to produce its products.
  2. Adopt a biological mindset to identify ABS replacements and LEGO brick manufacturing. Biology is the oldest technology on the planet. Our skills in engineering biology accelerate every year. To find new ways to manufacture its resins (and its bricks), LEGO Group will need to think like biologists and look to Nature for new materials. For example, Limpets are aquatic snails that possess the hardest biological material on the planet: their one-millimeter long teeth. Those teeth – or another high-performance organic material such as spider silk – could become the basis of the next generation of LEGO bricks.
  3. Brew the plastic onsite. Another way LEGO Group could reduce its carbon footprint is by brewing its plastics. The craft of making chemicals with biology is as old as civilization. The technology used to brew beer can be used to bio-manufacture new resins efficiently and reliably eliminating the carbon cost associated with transporting plastics from one continent to another.
  4. Grow the bricks. The molds that LEGO uses in the production of its blocks are reportedly accurate to within two-thousandths of a millimeter (0.002 mm). Biology is the most advanced manufacturing technology on the planet. Nature operates at both the micro, atomically precise scale, AND the macro scale. If the LEGO Group started growing its bricks instead of extruding and molding them, the company’s failure rate could drop to zero.

Lego

“We’ve taken the first small steps on a big journey,” says the LEGO Group of its sustainability aims for the future. Image: LEGO GROUP

We play a game here at the SynBioBeta office: Name an industry. We’ll tell you how synthetic biology is transforming that industry.

When we think of biotechnology (if we think about it at all), we often think of drug companies. But probably the biggest impact that engineering biology will have on our planet will come as we apply tools traditionally associated with pharma to areas like chemicals, materials, and biomanufacturing.

When you think of a company like LEGO Group, biotechnology probably would never enter your mind. But it’s an excellent example of how the tools of synthetic biology will make their way into every type of industry. The resulting products will be greener and sustainable and better for the economy.

We don’t know how much synthetic biology is being used at the LEGO Group. But this we know for sure: when LEGO bricks are manufactured from sustainable materials, they’ll still be a blast to play with, and they’ll still be painful to step on.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Karl Schmieder of messagingLAB for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest — here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

Originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2019/12/10/four-ways-synthetic-biology-can-help-lego-bricks-go-green/

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John Cumbers

John Cumbers

John Cumbers is the founder of SynBioBeta. John is passionate about education and on the use and adoption of biological technologies. He has received multiple awards and grants from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for his work in the field. John has been involved in multiple startups such as those producing food for space, microbes to extract lunar and martian resources, and hoverboards! John is an active investor through the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund and his synthetic biology syndicate on AngelList.

Karl Schmieder

Karl Schmieder

Karl Schmieder, M.S./M.F.A., has been providing strategy and communications counsel services to life sciences companies for more than 20 years. A rare combination of scientist and award-winning copywriter, Karl has a long tenure working with both startups and Fortune 10 life sciences companies developing technologies that disrupt markets. He has counseled multiple startups, launched major pharmaceutical brands (Risperdal, Januvia, Lucentis), and created thought leadership programs for executives at GSK, Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics, and PAREXEL. He served as Chief Marketing Officer at One Eleven Software and Chief Strategic Officer at Medikly. He is the co-author of What’s Your Bio Strategy? a book on the impact of synthetic biology on all business.

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