On February 13, 1997, a huge wave belted the container ship Tokio Express as it passed the coast of Cornwall in the UK. Among the 62 containers that went into the sea was one packed with five million pieces of Lego, much of it ocean-themed. The water was suddenly teeming with tiny plastic scuba tanks, seaweeds, life jackets and pirate cutlasses, and Cornwall beachcomber Tracey Williams has been picking them up, along with other plastic odds and sods, ever since.
She posts striking arrays of her finds on Instagram and Twitter under the handle @LegoLostAt Sea and last year released a book, Adrift: The Curious Tale of the Lego Lost at Sea.
For her, the Lego is a way to talk about plastics in the coastal environment. The bricks and figurines make up just a tiny fraction of the plastic she picks up on regular walks with her dog, Jess.
“I regularly see sights too upsetting to post,” she says. “Gulls with carrier bags caught on their wings, beautiful gannets strangled by fishing or angling line, seabirds tangled in net. It can be deeply distressing.”
One summer, Williams picked up more than 700 sand toys. “Many are shipped around the world only to break the first time they are used. It’s madness.”
Scientists recently examined Lego bricks picked up on Cornish beaches, compared them to bricks that had been well looked after on land, and concluded Lego could last anywhere from 100 to 1300 years in seawater before breaking down. Now the researchers are looking at how far Lego from the spill has drifted, and what’s happened to the pieces. Burning question, says Williams: “Where are all the Lego sharks said to have been lost overboard—are they still trapped in a tote box at the bottom of the sea? We’re yet to find one.”