How many LEGO skyscrapers could be built from a year's worth of ocean plastic?

LEGO skyscrapers
CC BY 2.0 pxhere

TIME crunches the numbers to determine how many life-size skyscrapers could be built with ocean plastic turned into LEGO bricks.

OK first things first, this little experiment does not imply that there are skyscrapers' worth of LEGO bits in the ocean, because who throws away LEGOs? (Yes, sometimes they get shipwrecked, but that's another story.) However, LEGOs or not, the oceans are becoming increasingly chock-full of plastic.

Research published this year reveals that a mere 9 percent of plastics are currently recycled; meanwhile, plastic use is expected to double in the next 20 years as "as manufacturers find new and varied uses for the material, according to a report from the World Economic Forum (WEF)," writes TIME magazine. As Lloyd points out, the fossil fuel industry is sinking all kinds of money into new plastic-making facilities, promising that the poor beleageuered planet will continue choking on the eternal stuff into the foreseeable forever.

Most of us know by now the staggering amount of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans; but to hear that 8 million tons of plastic finds its way into our seas annually ... well, what exactly does that look like?

So this is where TIME comes in, with a little (big) experiment, asking: "If all the plastic that winds up in the ocean over a single year was molded into LEGO bricks, how many life-size skyscrapers could you build with them?"

Figuring that the standard LEGO brick weighs 2.32 grams, that 8-million-tons of plastic-bonanza waste would create a mind-spinning 3.4 quadrillion such blocks. They then did a simulation and built a pretend full-scale replica of NYC's Empire State Building with said imagined bricks.

The typical 2-by-4 block is 31.8 millimeters long by 15.8 millimeters wide and 9.6 millimeters tall. The way LEGOs stack together leaves a tiny amount of space between them, so this simulation treats the length as 32mm by 16mm. Our life-size LEGO Empire State Buildings have a volume of about 900,000 cubic meters, close to that of the real thing.

The final tally? NINETEEN life-size Empire State Buildings. If you've ever stood anywhere near this iconic skyscraper, you know how massive it is. It has a footprint of approximately two acres and is comprised of 102 stories; and we allow 19 times that amount of plastic – in teeny-tiny bits – to enter our oceans each year. It's really pretty profound.

You can see the simulation over at TIME, it's a very good visual ... and a great reminder to curtail plastic use, especially single-use plastics and products containing microbeads (which basically go straight from sink and shower to sea).

See related stories below for more on plastic.

Related Content on