Here’s One Job in the Plastics Industry I’m Glad I Don’t HaveHere’s One Job in the Plastics Industry I’m Glad I Don’t Have
Over the years, I’ve thought about a lot of jobs in the plastics industry that seemed like they would be a fun challenge. Not this one.
October 20, 2023
Over the years, there have been a lot of jobs in the plastics industry that I thought would be fun to have. Wouldn’t it be exciting to work on a sunlight-propelled spaceship that uses plastic film to capture momentum from the sun, much like the wind moves a sailboat? Or the composites for the 787 Dreamliner? Or . . .
The Lego dilemma
About 10 years ago, I read about a new project within one company and immediately thought of the incredible difficulty and headaches that it would entail. The job? Coming up with an earth-friendly plastic to replace the ABS plastic used in Lego bricks.
Lego bricks have two incredible properties associated with them. The first is that they are well made. The bricks work the way that they are supposed to each and every time. You push them together and they stay there (this is called “clutch power”). If two bricks don’t hold, adults wouldn’t be happy, but for children, it would be a brand killer. It is essential that they work.
The second property is that they haven’t changed any aspect of their basic design in 60 years. You can take a brick from the 1950s and a brick from last week and they will work with each other (unlike, say, iPhone chargers). I can’t imagine Lego changing its design fundamentals any time in the next 70 years, either.
It’s not just about the bricks
These properties have contributed massively to the worldwide success of Lego and, in part, have made it the phenomenon it is, even as it is “just a toy.” It’s not just about the bricks, either: There are Lego conventions, Lego competitions (including some on TV), Lego fan sites, Lego movies, and more. Lego fans are not just children and their parents, but people of all ages, even cynical teenagers (and the college students that I teach).
But moving away from ABS is no small task. You can’t be innovative. You can’t change the size or shape of the brick and its subcomponents. Everything is already set in place. You’re just looking for the holy grail of “drop-in replacements.”
The big ask
ABS is petroleum based and the alternatives are limited. The best approach would be a bio-based ABS — using biological products and processes to make the monomers — acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene. Bio-based monomers, for all intents and purposes, would be chemically identical to petroleum-based monomers, so they could be run through existing polymerization and molding equipment and the transition would be as smooth as can be. Work is proceeding on this approach, but it is a big ask, and no one is there yet.
Lego realized this a while ago, and so they’ve looked at alternative resins, specifically recycled PET. However, they recently announced that option is not viable. After a complete analysis of the environmental impacts and the energy associated with drying the washed resin, they found the recycled PET had a larger carbon footprint than the current one. (Apparently, they needed to get it not just dry but extremely dry.) So, it’s back to the drawing board.
Let’s do a quick upside/down analysis of this project. If Lego pulls it off, the transition will be transparent, and no one should notice. That’s the best that can happen — no one notices, no one complains. The downside? The brand takes a big hit (or is even ruined), and you’ll be known as the person who killed Legos. New Coke, anyone? To me, that’s all downside and no upside. I love a challenge, but this job? Count me out.
About the author
John Spevacek earned a B.ChE. from the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois (Urbana). He worked in the plastics industry for 25 years for several companies, large and small, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
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