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Recycling LEGO: Possible Or Not?

Recycling LEGO: Possible Or Not?

Recycling LEGO is a question that comes very often at some point in the life of these toys. Even though most of the LEGO sets will get passed down generations, in some cases they are left unused for a very long time until someone decides to check if it can be recycled.

So, is it possible to recycle LEGO? Even though recycling is constantly evolving, at this point in time it is not possible to recycle LEGO. This is because LEGO is made out of ABS plastic, which is a hard-to-recycle plastic.

Let’s look first into the recycling of ABS, what is currently being done, and what we can expect for the future. After that, we will look into alternatives for recycling LEGO, such as donating it or reusing it. Lastly, we will look into what LEGO is doing in order to make its products more recyclable and sustainable.

Recycling LEGO – What is the current status?

As I have just mentioned, recycling LEGO is currently not possible in most locations. This is because LEGO is made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which is currently very hard to recycle.

Even though you will find some facilities which recycle ABS, these are the exceptions in the norm, and, in most locations, ABS will not be accepted for recycling.

There is a very interesting resource from WasteDive showing how recycling is changing in all 50 states in the United States. But the best way to know if you can recycle LEGO in your area is to check the recycling facilities you have available to you and see which ones recycle ABS.

In the United States, ABS is categorized under number #7 plastics, which is simply the “others” group where all the plastics that don’t fit into categories #1-6. This type of plastic is usually not accepted in the recycling facilities because of its broadness and difficulty in recycling. If it is, then usually only some groups within the number #7 will be recycled and ABS is usually not in those groups.

Attribution: Tomia, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Why is ABS not recycled?

There is currently this patent that shows how to recycle ABS. And, even though some resources online state that ABS is 100% recyclable, the reality is that most facilities do not offer the possibility to recycle ABS. You can find some exceptions, like some companies that recycle ABS such as Plastic Expert in the UK, but the majority do not offer the possibility to recycle ABS.

This might be explained by the fact that, even though it can be recycled, the resultant product is of low quality. This is backed up by some research I have been able to find online. According to studies such as this one or this one, ABS loses a big part of its mechanical properties after recycling. So, after recycling it, the quality of the product goes down dramatically.

This seems like a very plausible explanation why, for example, LEGO is not investing in recycling the ABS of its old bricks and they are instead looking into other materials for their bricks. One would think that, if recycling ABS was doable, this would be the easiest step for them to follow instead of changing to a completely different material with all the risks and extra expense that comes with that.

Alternatives to recycling your LEGO

So, if recycling is not a very suitable option, what are the alternatives to that if you want to get rid of your LEGO? Well, depending on the location, it will vary, but let’s have a look at the main things you can do.

Replay – The alternative to recycling your LEGO in the US

If you live in the US, you hit the jackpot. Even though it is difficult to recycle your LEGO, you can do something even better. You can just give it back to LEGO and they will sort it out for you.

How does that work? Well, LEGO has available its Replay program. LEGO has partnered with the Give Back Box, a logistics company that was founded in order to reuse discarded shipping materials.

Thanks to this program, you can basically give back your LEGO for free and LEGO will sort them out for you. To give them back, it couldn’t be any easier. You simply need to put them in a box, print the free label and ship it away.

This will go to Give Back Box, which will sort the bricks and send them to the charities. They are currently working with Teach for America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, who will be receiving your donations.

Consider selling your LEGO second hand

If your LEGO is still in a good state and you want to make some extra cash, you can consider selling your LEGO in a second-hand shop.

LEGO is so popular that there are many websites that focus exclusively on buying and selling second-hand LEGO. The most popular option among these is BrickLink. In addition to specialized second-hand shops, eBay is also a very popular option for selling second-hand LEGO.

This can even bring you some sizable revenue if you are clever about it. If you want to know a bit more about this, you can check our post “A Guide To Making Money Selling Used LEGOS”, where we explain to you all the nuts and bolts of making money selling used LEGOS.

Give your LEGO to your friends or family

If your LEGO pieces are not very new or you simply don’t have the time or the patience to get into selling them second hand, a very interesting alternative is to give it to some friends or family. As I said before, LEGO is extremely popular, so most likely than not, you will find someone interested in your LEGO.

This option has the benefit of impacting someone that you know. If someone is really into LEGO and you give them your collection or a part of it, they will be eternally thankful for the gesture.

Give your LEGO to a local charity shop (if you are not in the US)

The last alternative to recycling is to give it to a local charity shop. If you are in the US, this is not a great alternative because you may as well use the Replay program. Because it is done by LEGO themselves, you can make sure the process will be maximized.

If you live outside the US, though, giving your LEGO to a local charity shop can be a great alternative. Someone in need might be able to give your LEGO a second life or, alternatively, the funds received by selling your LEGO will help a good cause.

What is LEGO doing to make its product more recyclable and sustainable?

Now that we have had a look at recycling LEGO and its alternatives, let’s look at what LEGO is doing in order to make its product and the overall brand more sustainable.

Sustainable materials

The first aspect that LEGO is working on in order to make its product more recyclable is to use sustainable materials. As LEGO states on its website, its aim is to make all LEGO bricks from sustainable sources by 2030.

For LEGO, a sustainable material has to be produced responsibly. That means the material needs to use renewable or recycled sources. It also needs to generate little or no waste during production. Finally, it needs to use sustainable chemistry while meeting LEGO’s high standards for durability, quality, and, of course, safety.

This seems like a rather ambitious goal, but it shows the commitment of the LEGO brand to a sustainable future. This goal has already started showing the first results.

Back in 2018, LEGO started to make a range of sustainable LEGO elements. These elements come from sugarcane and create polyethylene, a plastic that is durable, soft, and flexible.

To make sure they are fully sustainable, the sugarcane is sourced sustainably using guidance from WWF, a partner that LEGO has for this goal. They also note that this development does not compromise food security in any case.

At the time of this writing, already 80 LEGO elements are made from sustainably sourced polyethylene. This is still a very small percentage of the total of 3600 elements that LEGO has in production, but it is an important first step. All big goals and accomplishments have to start with a first step and this is the first one in the LEGO journey towards fully sustainable materials.

Sustainable packing

In addition to sustainable materials for its bricks, LEGO is also making an effort to make its packing fully sustainable. In this case, LEGO has three ambitious goals for 2025.

The first one is to make 100% of the LEGO packaging, including boxes, bags, and other special packages, from recycled or sustainably sourced plant-based materials. This means that LEGO would be dramatically reducing its packing footprint. Out of the three, this is the most ambitious goal.

The second goal is to keep exploring ways to optimize packaging and balance consumer appeal with environmental action. This is because, sometimes, what is better for the customer is worse for the environment.

For example, customers might be happy to have different bags that divide different parts of the LEGO set they have purchased. But, the more packaging that needs to be done, the less sustainable it becomes. So, with this goal, LEGO aims to keep exploring that. The lack of specific and accountable results makes this goal less ambitious than the first.

The third goal is to make the packaging more recyclable. What they mean by that is that they aim to design packaging that makes it easier for consumers to recycle it in the main markets where they sell. This goal, as the second one, lacks specific and accountable results which makes it also less ambitious than the first.

The following are some actions that LEGO has already taken in order to make its packages more sustainable.

Recyclable paper-pulp trays

In 2017, LEGO changed its trays from plastic trays to recyclable paper-pulp trays. With this change, LEGO states that they have saved up to 1 million plastic trays from going to the landfill.

Recycled plastic in packing ‘blisters’

In 2018, LEGO started using recycled plastic in packaging ‘blisters’. Blisters are the transparent plastic windows that allow customers to have a sneak peek into the boxes. However, the idea is that these transparent plastic windows will eventually be phased out, reducing the need for plastic (even recycled one).

How2Recycle® label added to LEGO boxes in the US and Canada

In 2019, LEGO boxes in the US and Canada started featuring the How2Recycle® label. With this action, LEGO wants to promote packaging recycling while providing the US and Canadian consumers with clear guidance to responsibly recycle or dispose of their LEGO packaging. LEGO is working on a global approach in order to reach all LEGO consumers and not only the ones in the US and Canada.

The cardboard used in LEGO boxes comes mostly from recycled material

At the time of this writing, approximately 75% of cardboard used to make LEGO boxes comes from recycled material. In addition, LEGO claims that all the paper and cardboard that is used in their products and the product packaging is recyclable, sustainably sourced, and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council®.

Ban on plastic retail bags

At the end of 2019, LEGO announced that they will stop providing plastic retail bags in all its 500 LEGO® Stores globally in 2020. The plastic retail bags will be replaced with paper bags made from 100% certified Forest Stewardship Council® material.

Reducing CO2 impact

In addition to sustainable materials for bricks and packages, LEGO is also aiming at reducing the CO2 emissions of their manufacturing and selling activities. They have two main avenues in order to do that. First, they are always on the lookout for strategies to increase their carbon efficiency. Second, they invest in on-site and off-site renewable energy.

Regarding this second avenue, LEGO has a milestone of 100% renewable energy and invests in offshore wind in Germany and the UK through their parent company KIRKBI A/S. The energy output from the investments that LEGO has is currently exceeding the energy used at LEGO’s factories, stores, and offices.

These are a few more actions that LEGO has taken in order to reduce its CO2 impact.

Efficient lighting in factories

LEGO has changed the entire lighting system at our factory in Mexico. With this change, they have fitted more than 19,000 high-efficient LED lightbulbs which cover the whole production floor. This change has helped them save more than 1,300 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.

Installation of solar panels in factories

LEGO has installed a roof-based renewable energy system in its factory in the Check Republic. This system includes more than 3,500 solar panels. Thanks to this new system, LEGO states that they can reduce CO2 emissions by more than 500 tons annually.

Efficient cooling system in factories

LEGO has installed a new cooling system at our Danish factory. With this system, LEGO pulls in outside ambient from chilly Denmark and uses it to cool the production process of molding LEGO bricks.

Thanks to this new system, the need for less efficient systems is minimized. According to LEGO, this change has an energy reduction of more than 538,000 kWh, the equivalent of an annual CO2 emission reduction of more than 500 tons.

Engage-to-Reduce program to tackle issues in the supply chain

LEGO also wants to lower the carbon emission of its suppliers. In order to achieve that, then run what they call the Engage-to-Reduce program. With this program, LEGO wants to help suppliers report data and identify carbon reduction projects that are specific to their business. They also want to work with their suppliers so they can reduce water use and forestry impact.

The LEGO Campus, an example of a sustainable building

The last example of what LEGO is doing to reduce its CO2 impact is the LEGO Campus they have built in Billund, Denmark. According to LEGO, this building meets the leading Danish and international environmental building requirements.

One example that LEGO gives of that is the decision to use stronger plasterboard (a material usually used for partition walls). By using this type of plasterboard, they saved 22,000 kg of steel and 353,000 kg of CO2 emissions.

Another action has been to install over 4,000 solar panels on the roof of the car park. These panels, that cover 6,500 m², will produce more than 1 million kWh of energy every year. According to LEGO, that is approximately 50% of the energy needs of the LEGO campus.

So, as you can see, LEGO is taking some steps towards reducing its CO2 impact.

Eliminating waste

Last, but not least, LEGO is trying to eliminate waste. LEGO’s ambition is that, by 2025, no waste from any LEGO factory, office, or store will reach the landfill. This will be done by both reducing the waste they produce and increasing how much they recycle.

Final words

And with this, we have arrived at the end of this post. In this post, we answered if it is possible to recycle LEGO, explaining the current struggles with recycling ABS. Next, we have explained the alternatives to recycling in the locations where recycling is currently not possible. Last, we have explained what LEGO is doing to make its products and its overall brand more recyclable friendly, and, overall, more sustainable.