Louis O'Neill 14 May 4 min read
While your children may love it, you probably know of LEGO as the evil little bricks that send shock waves of pain into your body when you accidentally step on them.
With the ground-breaking ability for each piece to interlock with another, LEGO has served as the literal building block for generations of children's toys.
And with 19 billion new bricks produced each year, it's clear LEGO has woven itself deep into the toy industry.
Though when talking about such high numbers and considering that each piece is made using an oil-based plastic material known as ABS, it's no surprise that LEGO has faced its fair share of environmental concerns.
Because of this, LEGO has committed to finding a renewable replacement for their plastic by the year 2030, and 420 Magazine believes that plastic should be hemp.
Since the 2018 Farm Bill, the use of hemp for industrial purposes has been sharply rising in many industries.
Hemp has since found its way into the fuel, paper, textiles, health food, biodegradable plastics, and even cigarette filter industries. At first glance, this seems like a very credible option.
But first, let's talk LEGO.
Laying the First Brick: The History of LEGO
Deriving its name from the Danish term "Leg Godt," which means to "play well," LEGO was created in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen.
The young Danish father Kristiansen had previously owned a woodworking shop in Denmark, producing all sorts of household items such as ladders and stools.
That is until in 1924 one of Kristiansen's sons accidentally set fire to his workshop.
After rebuilding his workshop, Kristiansen decided to move away from traditional items and make a shift towards lower-priced toys in the hopes he could lift himself out of debt.
It proved to be a wise move, as Kristiansen found a great deal of success with his new toy range.
Kristiansen renamed his workshop LEGO and began to shift into using plastic as his primary construction material.
The first material chosen was cellulose acetate, a form of plastic most notably known for being the primary material found in cigarette filters.
For the next decade and change, LEGO would use this cellulose material to create their toys until finally creating their infamous 'Binding Brick' in 1949.
The studded, interlocking Binding Brick – now just considered a typical piece of LEGO – changed the game for interactive toys.
After huge success with the LEGO bricks, the company eventually switched to a substance known as ABS – Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene – an oil-based form of polymer plastic which retains its colour and is less susceptible to warping than its cellulose predecessor.
Go Fish – The Impact of Plastic on the Environment
ABS plastic was chosen by LEGO for its durability, which has ended up being a double-edged sword.
While the plastic can indeed withstand a punch, (or a defenceless foot landing upon it,) this also means that the polymer plastic won't break down easily if discarded.
This has proven to be a huge problem for the environment, namely the marine environment which often suffers as a result of plastic pollution.
In 2018 the UK government released a report entitled the 'Foresight Future of the Sea' Report, which found that non-degradable plastic made up 70% of the oceans litter.
There was also the case of the Sperm Whale which washed up in Spain, carrying a hefty 64 pounds of plastic within its stomach.
And National Geographic reported that an estimated eight million tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean each year, with the amount set to increase tenfold if we stick to our current waste habits.
While ABS can be "recycled" in a sense, only a select few recycling centers can properly process the plastic, leaving the rest to be disposed as waste.
Lego goes Green – Renewable Bricks by 2030
Aware of its own environmental impact, LEGO decided to move away from plastic materials and try to find a renewable alternative in 2016.
LEGO also partnered up with WWF as well as joining their Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA) in the hope that they could spike interest in a sustainable form of plastic.
To the tune of $155 Million and with a team of over 100 employees, LEGO began its search for the next new material, eventually landing upon a plant-based plastic derived from sugarcane.
To announce their progress with renewable materials, LEGO released a plant-themed range made from their new sugarcane plastic.
Unlike oil-based plastic, plastic derived from sugarcane has less of an impact upon the environment, as sugarcane bioplastic doesn't require the use of fossil fuels.
Sugarcane also generates far fewer carbon dioxide emissions during its production than conventional plastics.
Though the new cane sugar bioplastic isn't without its own host of issues.
While bioplastics are indeed a great step in the right direction, they require a huge amount of pesticides and fertilizers to be produced, which currently causes more ozone depletion than conventional plastics.
On top of this, when left in landfills and deprived of oxygen, bioplastics can release a greenhouse gas 23 times worse than carbon dioxide – methane.
This has led some to consider a different source for LEGO's bioplastic…
Sounds Dope: Could Hemp be the Answer?
The 2018 Farm Bill or the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 saw the declassification of hemp within the schedule one category.
This act would open the floodgates to what is now a growing and vibrant hemp industry, which is expected to reach $10.6 billion in value by 2025.
Found in over 25,000 products, hemp has entered into the fuel, paper, textiles, health food, biodegradable plastics, and even cigarette filter industries.
Hemp's ubiquity is no act of chance; the hemp plant is popular for several reasons.
For starters, hemp is one of the fastest growing agricultural crops, and can reach its full potential in just 4 months.
Conversely, cane sugar plants can take between 12-14 months to grow – three times as long as hemp.
Hemp is also relatively resistant to pests, causing farmers to use a very low amount of pesticides.
Meanwhile, the pesticides required for the sugar cane plant in Queensland alone are having adverse effects upon Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Hemp also produces oxygen, and often requires less industrial processing overall.
These factors all combine to make hemp one of the most environmentally sound industrial crops to grow.
And when it comes to bioplastics, one of the most important ingredients is cellulose – a naturally occurring polymer.
Sugarcane plants typically exhibit cellulose levels of roughly 40 percent, which is a high amount. But this is nothing on the bast fibers of hemp, which possess a whopping 70% to 80% concentration of cellulose.
This is why hemp is slowly making waves in the bioplastic space.
Australian based Zeoform have patented a product derived from hemp cellulose fibres which they've converted into an industrial, highly malleable material.
The material is non-toxic, biodegradable and can produce commercial and a range of industrial grade materials.
There's an aptly named US company called HempPlastic which has released a hemp-based ABS plastic which meets the FDA standards for food, pharmaceuticals and agricultural products.
Companies are beginning to realize the efficiency of growing hemp, as well as the durability of the plant itself.
For these reasons and more it's likely we'll see hemp enter into many more industries and continue to become an increasing part of the mainstream.
So could hemp-based bioplastic become the next LEGO brick?
Only time will tell, but we think it's a perfect choice.