Lost Lego seems like a kid’s nightmare, or some publicist’s idea of a catchphrase. However, when five million pieces of Lego are lost it becomes and environmental nightmare.
On February 13, 1997, about five million pieces of Lego were lost at sea when a rogue wave hit a massive cargo ship called the Tokio Express. The event, known as the Great Lego Spill, is the worst toy-related environmental disaster of all time. The Lego pieces aboard the Tokio Express were among 62 shipping containers that tumbled off the vessel. The ship was en route to New York after it loaded its cargo in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, when a rogue 28-foot wave smashed into it 20 miles off the coast of Cornwall, England.
Beachcombers still uncover the shipwrecked plastic treasures today. Along the beaches of Cornwall, England’s southwestern peninsula, locals and tourists alike have been finding more than just seashells along the seashore. Colorful ocean-themed Legos of octopuses with twisting tentacles, miscellaneous scuba gear, boxy whales, and other plastic pieces have been washing ashore for the last 25 years—a grim reminder of the lasting impacts of plastic pollution.
Collectors have gone out to look for “rare” pieces like octopuses and green dragons. Tracey Williams—a Cornwall local, beachcomber, and environmental campaigner—has documented the Lego spill for years on “Lego Lost at Sea” social media pages via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. More recently, she published Adrift: The Curious Tale of Lego Lost at Sea, a book detailing the Lego incident.
Though the wayward novelties may inspire wonder, the tiny bricks highlight plastic pollution’s impact on oceans. Out of the 4,756,940 Lego pieces on board, about 3,178,807 were light enough to float and these are what are commonly found across 40 beaches in Cornwall. For example, small plastic flowers and mini diver’s flippers are regularly seen along the shores.
“What we’re finding now are the pieces that sank as well as the pieces that floated,” Williams tells Live Science. “It’s providing us with an insight into what happens to plastic in the ocean, how far it drifts — both on the surface of the ocean but also along the seabed — and what happens to it as it breaks down.”
In 2017, Rob Arnold, a local of Cornwall, and 12 other volunteers collected about six million pieces of microplastics from a beach near his home, reported Inverse’s Nick Lucchesi at the time. The volunteers found plenty of Lego bits among other plastic pieces, including 240 Lego divers’ flippers, on beaches two decades after the cargo ship was hit.
Plastic can take centuries to degrade in the ocean, and as it deteriorates, it releases chemicals that can disrupt the reproductive systems of animals, Live Science reports. Future generations will likely continue to experience the aftermath of the Great Lego Spill. A study published in Environmental Pollution in 2020 found that after analyzing the structure of Legos with X-ray fluorescence, it would take about 1,300 years for the 1997 castaway Legos to degrade fully.
According to international agencies, at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year and make up 80 percent of all marine debris found in deep-sea sediments and drifting on surface waters.
It is interesting to think that a children’s toy can actually help us identify, understand and, perhaps, mitigate the huge amounts of plastic we dump in the sea on a regular basis. The fact that lost Lego is obvious when it washes up on the beach probably adds to its usefulness as an environmental protection tool. Regular plastic flotsam is easily dismissed but even a single piece of Lego stands out and reminds us of what we are doing to the environment. In multiple ways, the rogue wave that hit the Tokio Express was a major disaster, but it may just have been a wake-up call, even a helpful wake-up call, in the fight to clean up human pollution in the earth’s oceans.