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What Is the Legacy of the “Great Lego Spill”?

The "Great Lego Spill" of 1997 left a whimsical legacy, transforming a shipping accident into a treasure hunt along Cornwall's shores. This event sparked fascination with ocean currents and plastic pollution's impact on our seas. It's a tale of serendipity and science, reminding us of our footprint on the marine world. How has this shaped our environmental consciousness?

Beachcombers are plentiful along England’s southwestern coast, but they’re not just looking for interesting seashells along the seashore. They’re also finding small Lego pieces, many in the shape of octopuses and whales. The plastic debris has been littering Cornwall's beaches for 25 years – ever since an unexpected 28-foot (8.5-m) rogue wave buffeted the Tokio Express cargo ship and dumped 62 shipping containers into the English Channel.

An estimated five million Lego pieces were lost at sea in the February 1997 incident. Some drifted to the bottom of the ocean, and some have found their way to dozens of Cornish beaches. Coincidentally, many of the pieces depicted nautical objects, such as dive flippers, sea grass, scuba tanks, and pirate cutlasses. Other less-playful items lost from the Tokio Express included 10,000 disposable plastic lighters, superglue, and hazardous chemicals.

The Great Lego Spill:

  • Lego collectors are still on the hunt for rare pieces such as green dragons, part of Lego's sea creature line. Out of the 4,756,940 Lego pieces on board, about 3,178,807 were light enough to float. Whether at sea or back on land, the event created an ecological disaster of monumental proportions.

  • Plastic can take hundreds of years to break down in the ocean. When it does, the process releases chemicals that can affect the reproductive systems of marine creatures. A 2020 study published in Environmental Pollution determined that it would take about 1,300 years for the Legos to disappear entirely.

  • Rogue waves are massively tall and destructive ocean waves that appear out of nowhere. Once thought to be the stuff of maritime legend, modern evidence has shown that these waves actually do exist, and that they're difficult to track or even study.

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    • 25 years after a rogue wave spilled nearly 5 million Legos into the ocean, they are still washing up on the English coast.
      25 years after a rogue wave spilled nearly 5 million Legos into the ocean, they are still washing up on the English coast.