Several thousand shipwrecked Lego toys continue to wash up on Cornish beaches 25 years after falling overboard. The Tokio Express ship had indeed overturned its cargo after colliding with a rogue wave.
In 1997, a rogue wave hit the Tokio Express head-on about 20 miles off the west coast of Cornwall. The freighter, coming from Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, was to reach New York. As a result, sixty-two containers fell overboard. One of them contained nearly five million Lego pieces.
Shortly after the event, bathers in Cornwall, UK, began to find a few plastic toys washed up on the beach. Over 25 years later, it still is. Coincidentally, many of these pieces thrown overboard had a nautical theme. Among them were tens of thousands of octopuses, life jackets, scuba tanks, diving flippers and other pirate cutlasses.
The rogue waves
The Tokio Express ship overturned its cargo of Lego after colliding with a rogue wave. For a long time, rogue waves were thought to exist only in maritime legends. They are now known to exist, although according to the National Ocean Service (NOS), their unpredictability makes them difficult to track and study. Nevertheless, we know that they can occur wherever multiple storms come together.
The tip of South Africa, where waves from storms in the South Atlantic, Indian and Southern Oceans sometimes meet, is particularly prone to these “walls of water” which can reach ten to thirty meters high. This also applies to the Bermuda Triangle, where some storms may join, coming from Mexico, the equator and further east in the Atlantic.
For his part, the captain of the Tokio Express had described the rogue wave of February 13, 1997 as a “unique phenomenon in a hundred years”. According to his report, the wall of water shook the ship 60 degrees in one direction and then 40 degrees in the opposite direction. The ship’s manifest listed 4,756,940 Lego pieces lost at sea, 3,178,807 of which were light enough to float.
Lego toys: a danger to the environment
They are not alone. Some estimates indeed suggest that several million extra pieces ended up in the oceans after being flushed down toilets by children in the 70s and 80s. Naturally, that much plastic poses an environmental hazard.
Over the past few years, members of the LEGO Lost at Sea project, a voluntary organization, have teamed up with researchers at Plymouth University to try to assess the lifespan of these toys made from a common polymer known as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).
To do this, the researchers focused on around fifty pieces. While most were largely quite well-preserved, the physical stress these LEGO bricks suffered when exposed to the elements had caused them to lose their mass. After comparing them with pieces still in their original state, the researchers then estimated that an individual LEGO brick could resist in the ocean environment for 100 to 1300 years.
While we still do not know what consequences the degradation of these plastics could have on the marine environment, we do know that the parts tested were smoothed and discolored. Some were also fractured or fragmented, implying a release of microplastics into the environment.
Finally, remember that The Lego Group has been trying to develop a vegetable plastic for ten years. For the moment, the researchers have therefore not yet found the right formula, but work is continuing.