Colorful LEGO Bricks Have Been Washing Ashore English Beaches For 25 Years

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A container filled with about 5 million LEGO pieces spilled in the ocean in 1997 (Credit: Tracey Williams)

February 13, 2022, marked the 25th anniversary of the Great LEGO Spill — the worst toy-related environmental disaster of all time. On this fateful day in 1997, the Tokio Express was battered by a massive, 28-foot rogue wave off the United Kingdom's southwestern coast. The force tilted the cargo ship — en route from Rotterdam to New York — by 60 degrees, causing it to drop 62 containers into the sea. One was filled with about 5 million colorful LEGO bricks!

Shortly after the incident, LEGO pieces — many nautical-themed — began washing ashore the beautiful beaches of Cornwall and Devon in South West England. The LEGO Group provided a detailed inventory of the 4,756,940 pieces in the container, leading to hunts for "elusive" toys, such as the green LEGO dragons. With just 514 pieces in the container, they were much more challenging to find than the 33,427 black versions.

The LEGO pieces, many nautical-themed, have been washing ashore for 25 years (Credit: Tracey Williams)

Cornwall resident Tracey Williams was among the thousands of locals that combed the beaches regularly to find the little sea-themed pieces. The environmentalist and writer recalls taking her then-young children on a treasure hunt in Devon on weekends and returning with buckets of LEGO pieces. Her interest in the toys petered off for a few years when she moved inland.

But it was rekindled in 2010 after Williams moved to Cornwall and stumbled upon some LEGO pieces on her first trip to the beach. Wondering where else they had been found, she created a Facebook group. Called "Lego Lost at Sea," it allowed her and hundreds of other collectors to share their discoveries. As it turned out, the LEGO bricks were not just washing ashore English beaches. They had also been found in Wales, Ireland, the Channel Islands, France, Belgium, and Holland, showing just how far ocean currents had carried them.

"What we're finding now are the pieces that sank as well as the pieces that floated," Williams says. "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."

A 2020 study found that the LEGO pieces could take as long as 1,300 years to decompose completely (Credit: Tracey Williams)

Williams' latest book, Adrift: The Curious Tale of the Lego Lost at Sea, chronicles the story of The Great LEGO Spill and its extended effects. It also outlines the myriad of other strange plastic items the environmentalist has found on the beaches over the years.

No one knows when the LEGO bricks will stop appearing on the beaches. But one thing is for sure. The plastic pieces will be around for centuries. A 2020 study analyzing the structure of the washed-up LEGO bricks concluded that the five million pieces could take as long as 1,300 years to degrade completely. And like all plastic products, the iconic toys will never entirely disappear. Instead, they will break down into tiny "microplastics" and be consumed by marine animals. Many will make their way up the food chain to humans.

Resources: LiveScience.com, Brickfanatics.com, mentalfloss.com.

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