Of headless elephants and diving flippers

Today at Perranporth I found an assortment of children’s toys washed up by the spring high tides. A tractor wheel, a headless elephant, loom bands (a current trend in children’s fashion) and a lego divers flipper:

A Lego flipper, loom bands and a headless elephant I found at Perranporth, Cornwall, October 2014
A Lego flipper, loom bands and a headless elephant I found at Perranporth, Cornwall, October 2014. Image credits: Alice Trevail

The significance of such a find comes down to the small Lego flipper, which has been drifting around the Cornish coast for the last 17 years: almost 3/4 of my lifetime.

A freak wave off the coast of Land’s End 17 years ago, in 1997, caused a container ship destined for New York to lose 62 containers to the sea, including one full of 4.8 million Lego pieces. Ironically, most of the Lego pieces follow a nautical theme: since the container was lost, beachcombers have been finding seaweed, scuba gear, pirate cutlasses and ship rigging on beaches of the South west UK. Along with dragons, daisies and witches brooms – I can’t help thinking that the children of New York were destined to receive a strange Lego kit for Christmas in 1997!

Lego on Cornish beaches hit the news in April, when there was a surge in the number of pieces washing up. These Lego pieces haven’t travelled very far – just up the coast from Land’s End. They could potentially have travelled around the globe with ocean currents, but some have at least stuck around to enjoy the scenery – who could blame them?!

The most famous mass loss of plastic items to date was 28,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys lost in the Pacific in 1992. Over the following 10 years, they kept washing up all over the world, from Hawaii to Europe, teaching scientists about ocean currents as they went.

Although tracing Lego and rubber ducks makes a nice analogy for ocean currents, the moral of the story isn’t so bright and colourful. Plastic is made to last: after all that’s why we make, buy and use the stuff. However it’s also why the ‘throw-away’ use of certain plastics is so detrimental to the environment. Loss of containers isn’t the only way these toys are getting into the sea. I’m pretty sure that the loom bands, tractor wheel and headless elephant that I picked up could easily have been left behind at the beach after a busy tourist season.

Next weekend I’ll be in the Netherlands dissecting northern fulmars investigatin plastic ingestion, and I’ll keep an eye out for Lego!

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