LEGO toy construction bricks, Denmark’s most cherished contribution to the world aside from beer, bike commuting and Bjarke Ingels, are a marvelous thing, an imagination-bolstering staple of childhoods — and adulthoods — the world over since the late 1950s.

But despite the Billund-based toymaker’s longtime emphasis on quality, durability and sustainability (true to its renewables-obsessed Danish roots, the family-owned company has invested heavily in wind power and is also focused on minimizing packaging and ending unfavorable partnerships), LEGO has long been haunted by its own reliance on the terpolymer acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).

In layman's terms, that's plastic — and about 6,000 tons of it used by LEGO each year.

While petrochemical-based plastic is part of what makes LEGO bricks — a staggering 60 billion individual LEGO pieces were produced in 2014 — so awesomely indestructible, it's also served as an impossible-to-avoid sticking point for the otherwise squeaky green Danish icon. Is it even possible for a company, a company so aggressively sustainable in so many aspects of its business operations, to completely rid itself of the very material that has long defined it?

LEGO is more than willing to give it a shot.

Early this month, LEGO Group announced the formation of the LEGO Sustainable Materials Centre, a 1 billion DK ($150 million) investment dedicated to “finding and implementing new sustainable alternatives to current raw materials” by the year 2030. Basically, it’s a 15-year mission to separate itself from petrochemicals and replace ABS with some sort of proprietary bio-based plastic that’s just as resilient as the current plastic bricks.

Manufacturing operations at LEGO Group factories, which extend well beyond Denmark, contribute a modest 10 percent amount to the company's overall carbon footprint. The remaining 90 percent of the company's carbon emissions can be attributed to "raw material extraction and refinement" and other activities such as distribution.

Assembling in earnest over the next two years, the operation, based out of LEGO HQ in Billund, will employ a dedicated team of 100 “materials specialists.” It's unclear how many of these specialists will be female.

Remarks LEGO Group owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, whose grandfather, a carpenter, founded the toy company in the early 1930s (the modern, made-from-ABS Lego brick as we know it didn’t emerge until 1958):

Our mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. We believe that our main contribution to this is through the creative play experiences we provide to children. The investment announced is a testament to our continued ambition to leave a positive impact on the planet, which future generations will inherit. It is certainly in line with the mission of the LEGO Group and in line with the motto of my grandfather and founder of the LEGO Group, Ole Kirk Kristiansen: Only the best is good enough.

For now, LEGO Group isn’t explicitly signaling that the ABS alternative — a yet-to-be-determined “sustainable material” that has “an ever-lighter footprint than the material it replaces across key environmental and social impact areas such as fossil resource use, human rights and climate change” — will indeed be some sort of bio-plastic although, as mentioned above, that’s presumably the direction the company will be moving in.

Explains LEGO Group honcho Jørgen Vig Knudstorp in a press release: “There is no common definition of a sustainable material. Several factors influence the environmental sustainability of a material — the composition of the material, how it is sourced and what happens when the product reaches the end of its life. When we search for new materials all of these factors must be considered.”

Knudstrop goes on to add: “What we announce today is a long-term investment and a dedication to ensuring the continued research and development of new materials that will enable us to continue to deliver great, high quality creative play experiences in the future, while caring for the environment and future generations. It is a daunting and exciting challenge.”

While the materials experts at LEGO Group certainly seem to have their work cut out for them, the most “daunting and exciting challenge” for (mature) LEGO lovers themselves will continue to be the completion of that 1,888-piece replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel although, personally, this is a bit more my speed.

And as for the millions of pint-sized architects-in-training and "builders of tomorrow" mentioned by Kristiansen, it seems only fitting that LEGO, the largest toy company in the world as of September 2014, be the one to provide them with their first hands-on experience with sustainable materials.

Via [TIME], [Quartz]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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