February 13, 2022, marked a bizarre anniversary in the history of ocean pollution. On that day in 1997, a giant wave swept 4.8 million LEGO pieces into waters 20 miles off the coast of Cornwall in the UK. A quarter of a century later, the tiny plastic toys are still washing up on England's southwestern shores.
According to Smithsonian, the Great LEGO Spill is considered the worst-ever toy-related environmental catastrophe. It occurred when a cargo ship named Tokio Express was transporting goods from Rotterdam in the Netherlands to New York. A 28-foot wave toppled 62 shipping containers off the vessel, dumping items like superglue and disposable lighters into the sea. One box held LEGO sets, that—in a strange twist—were largely nautical-themed. That's the casualty that has gotten the most attention in the 25 years since the incident.
Beachcombers continue to find miniature flippers, harpoons, and octopuses in the sand to this day. Though the LEGO recoveries have been concentrated in Cornwall, American oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer estimated that the pieces could have drifted 62,000 miles across the world's oceans. Roughly 3.2 million of the lost LEGOs are light enough to float, which means the other 1.6 million have likely ended up on the seabed. They are destined to stay there for a while; according to a 2020 study, it will take 1300 years for the LEGOs lost at sea to fully break down.
The 1997 accident isn't the first disaster of its kind. After years of Garfield phones washing ashore in France, investigators traced their source to a shipping container that fell off a cargo ship in the 1980s. Both incidents demonstrate how the plastic we dump in the ocean isn't as easy to ignore as we may hope.