A PARADOX OF SCALE
Approximately 19 Billion LEGO components are produced every year. LEGO bricks are one of those things that never break and most people pass them down from generation to generation. Why? Because they're of great quality and fun to play with!
Every year, 200 billions of plastic bottles are used for water but only a fraction of the caps are recycled. Why? Because they are pretty much useless after the bottles have been emptied. What if they weren't?
Maybe if the caps could also be used for something else fewer might end up being tossed away!
A CAP WITH FUN: FUNCAP
Our proposal to get rid of plastic caps becoming garbage and polluting the environment is to design them to seamlessly work as a LEGO component after the early retirement from their bottle sealing careers.
Thereby, the life cycle goes from 10 minutes of usage (while drinking from the bottle) or 1 year (the usual shelf life of bottled water) to years and even generations of play-time with the toy. (A fun fact: The LEGO bricks used in the photos are around 40 years old. The plastic screw caps are around 1 months old.)
Some call this approach "upcycling". We call it the Superelliptic Economy!
WHAT IS FUNCAP?
FUNCAP combines the desired properties of a plastic screw cap (such as tight seal, easy to press down on the threaded bottle neck on the filling production line, easy to open by hand) with the properties of a LEGO brick (such as high quality, fine tolerances and perfect mechanical connectivity with other LEGO bricks).
FUNCAP is made in different shapes and sizes. However, a round shape facilitates its introduction in existing bottle filling production lines. Plastic screw caps come in different diameters (e.g. 38mm, 35mm and 28mm). As the most commonly used plastic screw cap size is 28mm, a 4x4 knob LEGO brick (31.8mm width) provides a good starting point for the first FUNCAP.
FUNCAP is a keeper
Currently, there are more than 80 pieces of Lego bricks in existence per person on planet Earth, and there are LEGO fans (of all ages) everywhere!
It is therefore very likely that avid LEGO builders (and their relatives) will see the benefit in actively collecting FUNCAPs and adding them to their brick collection.
As Trevor and Benjamin, young parents in Minneapolis, USA, said to us sometime in the future (sic!), probably around June 2018, about their two kids:
"They collect the FUNCAPs – not only from their own bottles, they also collect FUNCAPs from others."
high Social Return on Investment (SROI)
Other than being an obvious immediate benefit to the kids that love to play with LEGO, the economical benefits of FUNCAP, despite a (likely) increased unit cost, are obvious as it combines the utility of the screw cap and the LEGO brick.
Both caps, as well as LEGO bricks, have some initial costs associated with manufacturing. However, the plastic screw cap only creates value for a limited period of time. all components have eventually a disposal cost (not shown). The quantitative value of the long-term benefits of stimulating learning is difficult to estimate - but the "Net Present Utility" is positive.
Four things are needed to make FUNCAP happen:
- Scale (in order to reach a reasonable unit cost level)
- Reach (distribution of FUNCAP)
- Materials (choose the right materials properties to do the job)
- Innovation (access to Intellectual Property Rights in combination with the willingness to try something new and bold)
The table shows some Plastic Screw Cap solutions (as well as the pure LEGO brick):
The "Perma Cap" (which comes in many shapes and forms - 'many patents, no products') initially looks great (and reminds of the stay-on tab for aluminium cans). However, it is often necessary to separate the screw cap (made of HDPE or PP) from the bottle (made of PET) in order to recycle both. The initial benefits become, when looking at the total supply circle, a huge disadvantage.
The idea of turning bottle caps into LEGO bricks is not new. A Brazilian company introduced "Clever Cap" to the market but the product has no presence or traction. It seems that none of the Value Barriers were properly addressed.
The materials selection for FUNCAP is "TBD" (To Be Decided). The decision on which materials to use is not a trivial one (and is a value barrier). However, what is clear is that by combining two functions into one, a lot of plastics is saved. In this case from 9 gram to 5 gram or a reduction of 44%!
VALUE BARRIER: Reach and Scale
If you have Reach, you can Scale your production and thereby enabling economies of scale for lower production costs as well as broader and faster adoption globally.
The global bottled water market is estimated to grow by 8.5% and reach a value of $ 280 Billion by 2020.
As it happens, the key players in the global bottled water industry include Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Groupe Danone. All of these companies are participants in The New Plastics Economy Initiative. All companies have Reach. All companies can Scale.
As Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Groupe Danone, states in his 2017 endorsement of the Initiative:
"Resources management should not be summarized as a matter of cost optimization but as a powerful driver of shared value creation. [...] I am excited that Danone is taking a leading role in this initiative to help drive systemic change."
"Cost Optimization" deals with Year 1 in the Net Present Utility" graphs already mentioned. "Value creation" is related to the Net Present Utility. Consequently, FUNCAP is fully aligned with the mindset of (at least) one of the leading players in the bottled water industry.
VALUE BARRIER: MATERIALS
LEGO bricks are made of ABS plastics whereas a plastic screw cap is made of HDPE (or sometimes PP) plastics. Sometimes, an additional material is in-molded into the cap as a gasket. It is not obvious that ABS can be substituted by HDPE or visa versa. New materials could also be explored depending on desired lifespan for the FUNCAP to serve as a play piece.
Fortunately, the LEGO Group has allocated substantial resources to materials development: In 2015, the LEGO Group established LEGO Sustainable Materials Centre in a significant step up on the 2030 ambition of finding and implementing sustainable alternatives to current materials. LEGO Group owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen says:
"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”.
If the cost price constraints on screw caps for bottled water is loosened, it is likely (assuming that appropriate economic and human resources are allocated) that a suitable material for both bricks and caps can be identified.
VALUE BARRIER: Intellectual Property RIGHTS (IPR)
Rather than using (inferior) designs that might infringe on LEGO's intellectual property (and thereby limiting the reach of them), we propose to do FUNCAP in cooperation and understanding with LEGO.
Is FUNCAP possible? Yes! But only if the value barriers are overcome. Not by Hans and Soren but by the leading companies in the industries of toy building blocks and bottled water.
Can Hans and Soren forge a strategic alliance between LEGO and Danone? Probably not.
Can The New Plastics Economy Initiative, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, International Sustainability Unit and Wendy Schmidt do it? We hope so.
"Only the best are good enough."
Music: Enthusiast by Tours