In 1997, a shipping container holding nearly 5 million Lego pieces capsized into the sea around Cornwall, on the southeastern tip of England. Years later, the brightly-colored building blocks are still washing up onto beaches there; perhaps unsurprisingly, a new study that shows just how long the popular toy can persist in marine environments.
Thousands of Lego pieces have been collected on Cornwall’s shores by voluntary cleanup groups, among them the Lego Lost at Sea Project. The 1997 spill was a major contributor to the toys’ presence in the area, but there are other ways that Lego blocks make it into the natural environment. Some are washed out to sea as kids play on the beaches. Little ones are also prone to flushing their Lego down the toilet; one estimate posits that in Britain alone, 2.5 million Lego pieces have been flushed down the loo by children under 10.
As Live Science’s Brandon Specktor reports, a team of researchers recently took a close look at 50 pieces of Lego that had been scooped up from Cornish beaches. The scientists weighed the bricks, measured the size of their studs, and conducted chemical analyses using an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, which helped them confirm the age of the pieces. Many of the underwater pieces dated to the 1970s and 1980s; to gauge how the toys had fared amid the ocean waves, the team compared them to Lego bricks from the same period that had not spent decades under the water.
Legos are sturdy toys, “designed to be played with and handled,” notes Andrew Turner, an environmental scientist at the University of Plymouth and lead author of the new study, which appeared in Environmental Pollution. The team expected Lego to be durable, but the “full extent of its durability was even a surprise to us,” Turner says.
Based on the differences in mass between the underwater and unweathered Lego bricks, the study authors project that the toys could last anywhere from 100 to 1,300 years in the marine environment. Most Legos are made from a petroleum-based plastic known as acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), and their presence in seas reflects a much larger environmental crisis. Each year, some eight million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans, posing a threat to wildlife that ingest or become entangled in the trash.
Plastic also does not quickly biodegrade, instead breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces known as “microplastics.” It has been estimated that there are between 15 trillion and 51 trillion plastic particles floating through the ocean, and when these tiny pieces get gobbled up, they can damage the organs of marine creatures and leach toxic chemicals that impair growth and reproduction. Microplastics can also accumulate in the food chain, potentially making their way into our bodies—though the health effects of microplastic consumption among humans is not clear.
While the Lego pieces examined in the new study appeared to be fairly robust, they did show signs of wear and tear. "The pieces we tested had smoothed and discoloured, with some of the structures having fractured and fragmented, suggesting that as well as pieces remaining intact they might also break down into microplastics,” Turner says.
Earlier this month, Lego announced that it would be transitioning from ABS to a sugarcane-based polyethylene, as part of a commitment to making 100 percent of its bricks sustainable by the year 2030. But for now, the study highlights the importance of making sure that Lego pieces do not continue to make their way into the environment, where they may persist for centuries. So parents, please—watch for over-enthusiastic flushers.