Over 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by our planet’s oceans, which is eerily similar to the portion of our bodies that are made up of water. Water, in many ways, is the great facilitator of life. Humanity sure wouldn’t last very long without the oceans, rivers, and streams that populate our homeland. Unconscionably, that hasn’t stopped us from polluting the world’s oceans to an excessive degree.
There are literal trash islands floating in the Pacific, and it’s estimated that the ocean currently houses 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris. Decades ago, one may have been able to make the argument that we all just didn’t know any better. Although even then that stance would have been a flimsy one. At the end of the day, though, all we can do is try and make a difference today in the hope of a better future for our oceans.
To that end, a new and somewhat colorful study conducted at the University of Plymouth has identified a household item that is capable of polluting the ocean for over 1,000 years. The research team says that LEGO bricks can survive underwater for up to 1,300 years. That’s right, everyone’s favorite childhood toy may end up wreaking havoc on sea life for the next thousand years or so. Maybe little Timmy is going to get socks for Christmas this year after all.
LEGO toy sets consist of numerous tiny blocks that can be attached to one another, and while these toys are undeniably fun, the sheer quantity of tiny pieces means just one set could do a whole lot of polluting.
To come to these findings, the researchers measured the mass of individual bricks found on various beaches in South West England against brand new LEGO bricks right out of the packaging. They estimate that even in the absolute fastest scenario, a LEGO brick would still persist underwater for 100 years.
“LEGO is one of the most popular children’s toys in history and part of its appeal has always been its durability. It is specifically designed to be played with and handled, so it may not be especially surprising that despite potentially being in the sea for decades it isn’t significantly worn down. However, the full extent of its durability was even a surprise to us,” comments Dr. Andrew Turner, Associate Professor in Environmental Sciences & lead study author, in a press release.
These tiny toys, especially when broken down into separate pieces, appear harmless. But within an ocean environment, all it takes is one brick to choke a fish or release microplastics into the nearby environment.
You may be wondering, “well, there can’t be that many LEGO bricks in the ocean anyway.” Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Volunteer groups have discovered thousands of LEGO pieces during beach cleaning initiatives over just the past decade. It’s theorized that these bricks ended up at the beach and in the water during family trips to the ocean as well as during traditional waste dumping processes.
“The pieces we tested had smoothed and discolored, with some of the structures having fractured and fragmented, suggesting that as well as pieces remaining intact they might also break down into microplastics. It once again emphasizes the importance of people disposing of used items properly to ensure they do not pose potential problems for the environment,” Dr. Turner adds.
The study’s authors gathered 50 LEGO bricks from the beaches, washed each piece, and then weighed them one by one. For reference, LEGO pieces are constructed using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which is also used to produce most computer keyboards.
After that, an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer was used to uncover each brick’s chemical composition. That information was used to estimate each brick’s age by looking out for specific chemicals that haven’t been used in LEGOs for decades.
Finally, the collected bricks were compared to identical pieces from a new, unused set. Some of these pieces dated back to the 1970s and 1980s. By comparing the wear and tear of the ocean bricks to their unused twins, researchers estimated the bricks’ rate of decomposition in an aquatic environment.
When it comes to protecting our planet and making environmentally conscious decisions, it’s very common for people to think “I’m just one person, what does it matter if I recycle.” Small, seemingly insignificant actions add up, though, just like tiny LEGO bricks in the ocean.
The full study can be found here, published in Environmental Pollution.