OMG – It’s a Beached… LEGO® Brick?

Plastics are a problem. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), humans produce 30 million tons of plastic each year. Additionally, most of that is for one-time use. A lot of this plastic ends up in the world’s oceans. In fact, the IUCN estimates eight million tons end up in marine ecosystems each year. Oddly, this debris frequently includes LEGO® bricks. Additionally, these bricks are washing up on shore increasing the likelihood of finding a beached LEGO® brick.

LEGO® bricks are washing up on coasts after decades in the ocean.

While certainly not a single-use plastic, LEGO® bricks are part of global plastic production. In fact, the LEGO® Group sold around 75 billion bricks in 2017. Similarly, their factories produce around four million bricks an hour. To many AFOLs, LEGO® production is not an environmental concern. We all keep our bricks. The idea of disposing of them is sacrilegious. However, bricks do not always remain safely in storage bins and builds. In fact, a recent study examined the persistence of plastic in the ocean using beached LEGO® bricks.

Beached LEGO® bricks, image compliments of Dr. Andrew Turner, Plymouth University.
Beached LEGO® bricks. Image Credit: Dr. Andrew Turner, University of Plymouth.

The research came from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. It compared beached LEGO® bricks with contemporary counterparts from collections in the UK. The study received 50 bricks from volunteer beach cleanup crews. Amazingly, the design numbers molded inside the bricks survived the ocean on 14 of those pieces. These design numbers allowed researchers to match beached bricks with their un-weathered counterparts.

Weathering significantly changes LEGO® bricks in the ocean.

Each pair of bricks went through a battery of tests. The results show that the beached bricks underwent significant weathering in the ocean. Weathered LEGO® pieces had less mass and exhibited smoother edges, discoloration, and structural deformities. Interestingly, weathering heavily impacted studs. They decreased in height anywhere between eight and 60% and lost the embossed LEGO® logo. Compression tests also revealed that the beached bricks were more brittle. Additionally, weathered bricks featured more microscopic pores, scratches, and cracks than their safely stored counterparts. The chemical composition and distribution of the bricks changed in the ocean as well.

Beached LEGO® versus regular LEGO®.
The study examined 14 identifiable beached LEGO bricks by comparing them with their contemporary, un-weathered counterparts (Turner et al, 2020).

What does all this mean? Simply put, LEGO® bricks leech chemicals into the ocean. Also, the fact that they lost mass suggests that they contribute to the microplastic problem. Scientists classify microplastics as any piece of plastic under 5 mm in length. They can be microscopic and eaten by marine organisms. Consequently, microplastics work their way up the food chain. They even end up in human food.

An estimated 2 million bricks have been flushed down the toilet.

How the LEGO® bricks wound up in the ocean in the first place is a mystery. The article estimates that the 14 bricks studied circulated in the ocean for 30-40 years. Researchers speculate that bricks lost by children at beaches and along rivers account for some. However, it is more likely that small children flushed them down the toilet. Apparently an estimated two million blocks have met that fate in the UK.

Microscopic view of beached LEGO® versus regular LEGO®.
Electron microscope views of a normal LEGO brick (top) and a weathered LEGO brick (bottom) showing cracks, pores, scratches, and element composition (Turner et al, 2020).

One of the many wonderful things about LEGO® bricks is that they are multi-generational. The original bricks from 1958 are compatible with all the latest ones from 2020. Additionally, adults enjoy them as much as kids. This results in few LEGO® bricks adding to global pollution. However, it does happen. The results of this study show that based on the rate of brick degradation seen, LEGO® pieces persist in marine ecosystems for anywhere between 100 and 1300 years.

The moral of the story is taking care of your bricks (as if AFOLs need that warning). Additionally, make sure kids do not flush them down the toilet. If you no longer want them (what?!?), donate them to schools, charities, or the LEGO® Group’s own Replay program. True North Bricks also accepts used collections😉. Finally, LEGO® bricks should never end up in landfills or the ocean.

Until next time,

-Tom

Closeup comparison of un-weathered versus weathered LEGO® bricks (Turner et al, 2020).

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING:

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