Researchers from the University of Plymouth studied Lego bricks that washed up on the coastlines of southwest England. After confirming the ages of the weathered pieces, they compared the bricks' weights with those of equivalent unweathered pieces. The researchers found that Lego bricks could survive between 100 and 1,300 years in the ocean.
Dr. Andrew Turner, one of the study authors, said that Lego is among the most popular children's toys in history, and its durability is part of its appeal. However, the full extent of its durability is surprising.
"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."
In their report, Turner and his colleagues emphasized the importance of proper disposal of plastic waste to prevent them from causing problems to the environment. Over the past decade, voluntary organizations from Cornwall have retrieved thousands of pieces of Lego and other plastics during beach clean-ups.
The study used 50 pieces of weathered Lego that were washed and then weighed in the laboratory. An X-ray fluorescence spectrometer was then used to determine the chemical characteristics of the blocks.
Researchers then paired the bricks with unweathered sets purchased in the 1970s and 1980s. They were able to identify the levels of wear in the bricks retrieved from beaches, which were then used to calculate how long the pieces could continue to endure in the environment.
Although it is unclear where the bricks came from, most of the pieces found in the southwest of England were from a serious spillage in the 1990s. No spillages have been reported prior to that.
"It is possible that individual blocks are lost at play on the beach or washed out to sea with watercourses when lost elsewhere. However, research and calculations undertaken by one of the U.K.'s largest insurance companies suggest that over two million blocks have been flushed down the toilet by children under ten years old," the researchers said. (Related: High levels of microplastics found in babies' poop.)
By comparing aged blocks that have been in the ocean and those that have been well-preserved, the team found that Lego bricks could survive in a marine environment for hundreds of years.
Plastic does not degrade quickly. Instead, it breaks down to smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics. There is an estimated 15 trillion to 51 trillion plastic particles floating in the ocean, many of which are consumed by marine animals. These microplastics damage thee animals' organs and leach toxic chemicals that impair their growth and reproduction.
Microplastics can also accumulate in seafood and end up inside human bodies. Many reports have enumerated the negative impacts of microplastics on human health, which include cellular damage, inflammation, neurotoxicity and unfavorable metabolic changes, among others.
The Lego pieces examined by the researchers appear to be fairly robust, but they did show signs of wear and tear, suggesting that they contribute to the microplastic pollution that's plaguing the oceans.
In 2020, Lego announced that it would start transitioning from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), the thermoplastic polymer the company uses to make Lego bricks, to a sugarcane-based polyethylene to push through with its commitment to making 100 percent of its bricks sustainable by 2030.
Visit Pollution.news to know more about how plastic toys are polluting the world's oceans.