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Petroleum in Real Life: LEGO

Everything is awesome with these durable plastic building blocks providing generations of kids (and adults) endless hours of joy, creativity.

Building Creativity – One Block at a Time

Brilliant in their simplicity and used to construct everything from fire-breathing dragons to superhero cars and wizarding castles, sturdy, colourful and versatile LEGO blocks will be on many a Christmas list this year. In fact, over 75 billion LEGO elements (individual pieces) will be sold this year, 60 billion of which will be made from petroleum-based, acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, or ABS, a common thermoplastic polymer.

Manufacturing

ABS arrives at LEGO’s manufacturing facilities in granulated form and is stored in large silos, with an average per-plant storage capacity of 33 tons. Within the facilities themselves, rows of machines will then melt the multi-coloured plastic pellets into a molten paste, which is then pressed into various molds to produce over 100 million LEGO elements daily. ABS composition ensures the blocks are tough, yet still elastic, and come with a polished surface.

Want a few hours of captivation? Get the 2017 UCS edition of the LEGO Millennium Falcon—it’s the largest kit made by LEGO with 7541 pieces. Photo from Shutterstock.com

A brief history

The LEGO Group was founded in Billund, Denmark in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen. He named the company, LEGO, a word he derived from the Danish “leg godt”, which means “play well.” Initially a manufacturer of wooden toys, it wasn’t until 1949 when the LEGO Group would produce its first incarnation of LEGO blocks. In 1958, modern-day LEGO was first developed and patented. It took several more years, however, before just-the-right material for production was found; in 1963 ABS became the main input for the manufacturing of LEGO blocks.

LEGO became a dominant toy manufacturer. The company never posted a loss till 1998. However, by 2003, it was in big trouble. Sales were falling and the company was mired in debt.

How LEGO reinvented itself

LEGO’s revival in the early 2000’s is largely attributed to Vig Knudstorp who arrived at the company in 2001 and became its top boss in 2004. He focused the company back on its classic lines like City and Space, and expanded or launched lines with strong book and movie tie-ins like Harry Potter and Star Wars. Knudstorp also launched new lines like Ninjago, as well as Mindstorms—a series aimed at teens and featuring kits that allow you to build programmable LEGO robots.

The company, which historically has had a customer base of around 90 percent boys, has also worked on cracking the girls’ market with Lego Friends—featuring five characters living in the fictional Heartlake City. And complex replicas of real-world objects, buildings and scenes have enamoured both children and adults: replicas of the Ford Mustang, NASA’s Apollo Saturn V, the Taj Mahal and London’s Big Ben are among the company’s bestsellers.

Today, the LEGO Group remains a family-owned company headquartered in Billund, Denmark, with products sold in more than 140 countries worldwide.

One trend behind LEGO’s revival is kits featuring detailed replicas of real life structures like the Tower Bridge in London, pictured here. Photo from nomadFra / Shuttterstock.com

What does the future hold?

Currently, LEGO’s components are made of 20 types of plastics. LEGO’s primary material input, ABS, affords LEGO blocks the much-valued attributes of durability, color fastness, strength, and clutch power (i.e., how well two joined bricks stay together).

Their durability, and the fact that one can be endlessly creative with them, are the reasons why LEGO bricks are rarely thrown out. In fact, they are often passed down from generation to generation, finding new life in young hands.

LEGO itself operates under high environmental and social standards--in 2019, LEGO ranked first place in the Reputation Institutes Global Corporate Responsibility study.

The company is currently looking to discover or create more sustainable materials for its blocks. To date, LEGO has not found a material that compares to ABS’s performance standards, longevity, and brightness. (It has already experimented with over 200 alternatives!) One solution could be recycled plastics: LEGO predicts that recycled materials, such as ABS plastic in general, will play a large role in meeting its sustainability goals.