What 4,756,940 pieces of Lego lost at sea tell us about our attitudes to plastic pollution
In 1997, a shipping container holding millions of Lego pieces fell into the sea. As they washed ashore, Tracey Williams began to record what she found... and she's still going.
by: Tracey Williams
11 Feb 2022
Lego lifeboat, run ashore.
Photo: Courtesy of Tracey Williams
If you search carefully along the strandline after a wild winter storm, you might still find them. Tiny yellow life jackets and grey scuba tanks. Bright-green plastic seagrass and little spear guns in red and yellow. Blue, black and red divers’ flippers and miniature cutlasses. Perhaps a dragon or an octopus, just three inches long. Maybe even a small yellow life raft. They’re from an armada of Lego that fell off a ship in 1997. And they’re still turning up today.
The curious tale of the Lego lost at sea began on Thursday February 13, 1997, when a cargo ship laden with goods was hit by a storm. The Tokio Express had set sail from Rotterdam when it became engulfed in mountainous seas 20 miles off Land’s End, Cornwall.
In what the ship’s captain later described as a “once in a 100-year phenomenon”, a rogue wave tilted the vessel 60 degrees one way, then 40 degrees back, sending 62 shipping containers toppling into the ocean. One held nearly five million pieces of Lego, on its way from the toy company’s factory in Billund, Denmark to North America, where it was to be made up into sets.
By a strange quirk of fate, much of the Lego was sea-themed; 4,756,940 pieces of plastic, bound for seafaring adventures. No one is sure what happened next – whether the container of Lego burst open on impact, scattering its contents into the ocean, or whether it carried on floating for a while, slowly releasing its cargo as it drifted to the seabed.
But in the days that followed, helicopter pilots flying over the area reported seeing ‘a slick of Lego’ floating in the sea. And beachgoers started finding Lego washed up on Cornwall’s wild and windswept shores.
When my children were young, searching for Lego on the shores beneath our family home on the south coast of Devon became the highlight of any trip to the beach. Every weekend would involve a treasure hunt. A cork, a feather, two Lego flippers, a heart-shaped stone.
We noticed the smaller pieces first. Tiny life jackets strewn along the strandline, spear guns and scuba tanks scattered across the sand, flippers and flowers floating in rock pools. We gathered the pieces up in their hundreds, storing them at first in old ice-cream tubs on the kitchen windowsill.
It was the dragons that captured everyone’s imagination. There were 33,941 inside the container that fell off the Tokio Express – 33,427 black dragons and 514 green. While the black dragons washed ashore in their thousands, the green ones proved to be far more elusive.
Over the years, I largely forgot about the Lego. But in 2010, I moved to the north coast of Cornwall. And on my first visit to the beach, I found a bright yellow Lego life jacket from the spill.
Thirteen years on and it was still turning up. I was amazed. There wasn’t just Lego on the strandline, though. There was so much plastic. Shoes, buoys, rope, bottles. Some from shipping, some from fishing, some left behind by beachgoers. But where did all the rest come from? The toothbrushes, the bookies’ pens, the paintbrushes and Monopoly houses?
Horrified at the amount of plastic now littering the beach, I joined the barefoot army of dogwalkers, surfers and beachgoers picking up debris from Cornwall’s shores. I began working round the tides, often leaving the house before dawn to roam the coastline with my rescue dog, Jess.
As a child I was frightened of wading through seaweed, feeling the fronds wrapping around my legs. It’s known as fykiaphobia – the fear of seaweed – though these days I am more afraid of what lurks within it, rather than the seaweed itself. Old clothes, combs and the remains of mobile phones. Keys from typewriters, computer keyboards and calculators. Carpet remnants and golf balls. Cable ties, hairbands and frisbees. Divers’ fins, curtain hooks, deflated footballs. Bank cards, razor heads, medical lancets.
There are fragments of plastic bottles too, thousands and thousands of them. While bottle caps often float ashore, the bottles themselves sink to the bottom of the sea, breaking apart into smaller and smaller pieces. Sometimes all we find are their faded bases, looking curiously like stranded jellyfish.
No one knows how many goods from cargo spills are lying on the ocean floor. No one really knows how many items from shipping containers fall overboard every year. Currently, lost goods only have to be declared if they are classed as hazardous.
The responses of companies to cargo spills vary wildly. Some are full of remorse, keen to make amends. They fund beach cleans, offer to send teams of people to pick up lost cargo from beaches, set up hotlines and provide recycling facilities. Others keep silent, perhaps not wanting the embarrassment, inconvenience or legal implications of a cargo spill.
At any time, there are over 6,000 ships carrying containers around the world, huge vessels transporting 226 million giant boxes a year. Now stacked higher than ever before, they transport everything from trainers to televisions, chairs to car tyres, motorbikes to medical tape. As Rose George says in her book, Deep Sea and Foreign Going, 90 per cent of everything we wear, eat and consume is brought to us by these huge floating warehouses. Some carry more than 23,000 containers at a time.
However, not all make it safely to their destination. In its 2020 report, the World Shipping Council revealed an average of 1,382 containers had fallen overboard each year for the past 12 years. That figure was calculated before over 3,000 containers fell into the Pacific Ocean between October 2020 and January 2021, though.
In many ways, the curious tale of the Lego lost at sea is a story without an end, a vast jigsaw with millions of missing pieces. An ocean mystery that fascinates some but horrifies others. Where is all the Lego seldom seen – the sharks, magic wands and witches’ hats?
Maybe some of the Lego lying on the seabed will continue making its way ashore for years to come, swept hundreds of miles by sea floor currents.
For many people who pick up plastic from beaches, finding a bit of ‘treasure’ is what makes it fun – a Lego dragon, a toy soldier, a Smarties lid, a tiny dinosaur – but obviously it would be better if it wasn’t there at all.
As 11-year-old Laura, finder of a Lego octopus, said after one of our beach cleans many moons ago: “I like to find treasure. But what I like to find most is a clean beach.”
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