Lego Lost At Sea: How a search for five million minifigures lost off Cornwall in 1997 uncovered an underwater world of plastic toys | Ents & Arts News
When nearly five million Lego pieces escaped into the sea off the Cornish coast, spilling from a freighter hit by a freak storm, the tiny, colorful minifigures that quickly piled up on the beaches soon became a treasure for beachcombers.
Many pieces, coincidentally, were sea-themed: flippers, octopuses, life jackets, spearguns, cutlasses, sharks and scuba tanks; thousands of them head for the shore to be found floating in rock pools and strewn across the sand. There were also witches hats, wands, brooms and more.
The Tokio Express was a freighter bound for New York in the United States after leaving Rotterdam in the Netherlands. It was February 13, 1997 when it all capsized about 20 miles off Land’s End, the Lego container, one of only 62 that fell in the water. Twenty-five years later, her tiny plastic passengers can still often be found washed up on shore, many barely unaffected by the passage of time and a life beneath the waves.
Tracey Williams was living in Devon when the shipping crate tipped over, and that’s when she started noticing the Lego. The toys had captured the imagination of residents for miles around; like the Panini football sticker albums that were playground staples of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, they have become collector’s items – along with the rare green dragons (the container only held 514, compared to 33 427 black dragons) among the biggest prizes. The black octopuses were the “holy grail” as they mixed with the seaweed and were therefore difficult to spot; Williams found his first in 1997 but didn’t discover another for 18 years.
After moving inland, she forgot about Lego for a while. But after returning to Cornwall in 2010, she discovered Lego items on her very first trip to the beach there. What started as a collection exercise has turned into an exploration of our oceans, the litter that ends up in water, and the lingering legacy of plastic.
“I thought it was amazing that it’s still washing up all these years later,” she says. “It started out as a bit of fun. But over the years it made me realize how much plastic is in the ocean and buried in the sand.”
Williams began recording her findings, first creating a Facebook page and later other social media accounts on Twitter and Instagram. Thousands of people have reached out, she says, sharing details of their own beach treasures.
She now tells the story in a new book, Adrift: The Curious Tale Of The Lego Lost At Sea. “It was interesting to start mapping it out and see how far it had gone,” she says. Lego pieces have been found on the Gower Peninsula in Wales, County Kerry in Ireland, Kent and Guernsey. Some went to France and Belgium, some even returned to Holland.
“We thought at the time that half the Lego was floating and the other half was sinking – it’s a bit of a simplification, but pretty close,” says Williams. “What we’re realizing is that even the Lego that sank is now starting to wash ashore and it’s gradually drifting along the seabed. I think that shows us how long plastic lasts and how far it moves and what happens to it when it decays.”
Tim Brooks, Lego Group’s Vice President of Environmental Sustainability, is interviewed in the book and tells Sky News that the company is “passionate about keeping Lego bricks out of nature, and we never want that Lego bricks end up in the sea”. He adds: “The Lego Group takes protecting the planet very seriously and we have a bold sustainability strategy that aims to leave a positive impact on the planet that children can inherit.”
You’ll find Williams, accompanied by her dog Jess, combing the beach near her home on the north Cornish coast each morning. Right now, following an algal bloom that has resulted in a lot of litter, this can be the first of up to four trips a day, she says, while pointing out that there’s no does not always have such a need.
“I picked up about 2,000 rubber bands, which could be from lobster traps or crab traps, but I don’t know. Things like dental floss and lancets for diabetes, those are all things that , I guess, have been dumped in the loo in years past and it’s all still there, some of them are 40 years old.
During her beach cleanups, Williams discovered all sorts of items: pens, toothbrushes, coat hangers and of course, plastic bottles. She’s amassed a colorful collection of Smartie tube lids that are “50 to 60 years old.” Unsurprisingly, much of the litter is now COVID-related.
She has thousands of Lego items stored at home, with plans for an exhibition one day, but doesn’t keep much else. “I’m trying to find a home for him,” she says of the rest of the trash she finds. “I pass on a lot of the plastic to local artists who use it to raise awareness of marine debris. We recycle what we can. Buckets and shovels, good quality items, we take them to charity shops , etc.”
Adrift is filled with beautiful images of Williams’ discoveries that evoke feelings of nostalgia; the long-forgotten childhood toys that lived in a different world. She hopes it will raise awareness of the harmful effects of plastic in our oceans in a way that doesn’t scare people away or make them feel like they’re being blamed.
“I think what Lego has done is allowed us to kind of tell the story of plastic in the ocean in a way that’s not too scary and in a way that people can I have horrible pictures, heartbreaking pictures, of birds being strangled with a rope and I think sometimes it can be so upsetting that you don’t want to watch it. I get it. It’s a heartbreaking subject, but what I’ve tried to do is tell the story of ocean plastic in a way that’s not so earth-shattering.”
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, she says. “Are toothbrushes beautiful? A toothbrush might be trash, but when you see dozens of them lined up, it makes for a thought-provoking work of art. Some photos show typical trash – crusty packets, bottles, fishing lures and tattered flip flops – while others feature the symbols of many childhoods: toys in cereal packets, a Garfield telephone, My Little Ponies, as well as the Lego.
Growing up in the 90s, I collected Trolls while my sister had Polly Pockets, I tell Williams. These were also found washed up in Cornwall.
“I don’t know what happened to all my childhood toys,” Williams says. “Do you know what happened to yours? It suddenly makes you think, ‘well, where are they or they?’ Are they in landfill somewhere? Does the landfill go into the sea? It makes you think, ‘I had all these things, but where did they all end up?'”
The Garfield phone was not found in Cornwall, but rather in Brittany, on the northwest coast of France. Williams documents other cargo spills at Adrift – including the famous 1992 rubber duck escape in the North Pacific – and tells how the Garfield phone shown was not unique; devices mysteriously began washing up on beaches in Brittany in the 1980s, she says. Source? A lost shipping container of phones that was eventually found lodged in a sea cave.
As part of her research, Williams teamed up with scientists from the University of Plymouth to test the lifespan of Lego in the sea. Between 100 and 1,300 years, they concluded. She recently shared two side-by-side photos of Lego bricks on social media, one a sample provided in 1997, the other discovered in a fisherman’s net in late January.
“There’s not much difference between them,” she says. “[The brick from the spill] has a few sea creatures living there but it is still in pristine condition.
“I think what shocks me now is to realize how [plastic] is actually lying on the seabed because I think very often you only really see and hear about the plastic washing up on the shore. If there is a cargo spill, there are usually reports of what washes up, but there is never any mention of all the items that have sunk to the sea floor.
“I think it’s assumed it’s almost gone forever and lost without a trace. But we know from Lego that it’s all still there.”
Adrift: The Curious Story of the Lego Lost at Sea, by Tracey Williams, is now available