LEGO Bricks May Survive in the Oceans for 1,300 Years

A single LEGO brick can survive in the ocean for up to 1,300 years, researchers have discovered.

In a study published in Environmental Pollution, a team led by Andrew Turner, from Portsmouth University in the U.K. analyzed 50 pieces of weathered LEGO bricks found washed up on the shores of Cornwall, southwest England.

Pieces were cleaned, measured and weighed. Researchers studied their chemical characteristics to check the age of each block, basing their calculations on elements in the bricks that are no longer used in the production process. These bricks were then paired and compared with unweathered sets from the seventies and eighties, so that the team could determine the level of wear and tear each had experienced over the last forty years or so.

"LEGO is one of the most popular children's toys in history and part of its appeal has always been its durability," Turner said in a statement.

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"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."

Established in 1932 and introduced to the U.S. in 1962, the toy company had produced more than 400 billion units by 2008. This, the manufacturer says, is enough to build a tower stretching from the Earth to the moon ten times over. Today, the LEGO Group is one of the leading toy companies in the world and raked in approximately £1.2 billion in profits in 2019.

But because LEGO bricks are a relatively recent invention, the rate of weathering over a period more than a few decades is difficult to measure. It is even more so because the chemical composition of LEGO bricks has changed over time—so varies a lot.

However, that variation does comes with an advantage. Turner told Newsweek the changes in pigment composition that have taken place throughout the company's history enabled the researchers to determine when the bricks were manufactured and therefore, determine the rate of deterioration.

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It was not the only reason the team chose to study LEGO bricks: they are iconic plastics that most people can identify with, he explained.

Their analysis showed weathered bricks displayed more yellowing, fracturing and fouling than unweathered bricks they were paired with, though the extent of each of these processes varied block-to-block, depending on the conditions the brick was subjected to. The weathered bricks also tended to have a lower mass, a lower average stud height and a lower mechanical strength.

The study's authors ascribe these changes to physical wear and tear to deterioration caused by light and oxygen. However, the extent of the damage—and the total amount of time each individual LEGO brick survives in the ocean—varies depending on how much light and oxygen and how much physical wear the brick is exposed to.

According to the researchers, the upper estimate of 1,300 years reflect a process of gradual degradation that might happen if, for example, there is limited light and oxygen exposure. The lower estimates may apply if there is extra stress placed on the bricks that causes the plastic to fragment and so deteriorate quicker.

Findings suggest LEGO bricks have the potential to last for anywhere between 100 and 1,300 years—implying archaeologists in the year 3,000 CE may still be digging up our discarded LEGO. There are very few projections for what the world might look like then. Though one paper from researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has suggested the entire Greenland Ice Sheet could melt in a millennium if emissions are not cut, leading to a 17 to 23 feet sea level rise.

The difference between the upper and lower estimates underscores the challenges and uncertainties that underlies efforts to predict how fast—or not so fast—plastic degrades, Chris Reddy, senior scientist in the Department of Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), told Newsweek.

"The authors choose a material that was well known and characterized and hence had the luxury of minimizing uncertainty of "their starting material". And yet they were cautious enough to give such a wide range.

"How accurate are other estimates—too slow or too fast—for the countless other products in the ocean when you consider the range in ages for a well-designed experiment in this paper?"

Weathered and unweathered LEGO bricks
Archaeologists of the future could be fishing LEGO bricks from the oceans centuries from now. New research suggests the plastic pieces could take between 100 and 1,300 years to deteriorate. Andrew Turner, University of Plymouth

The team say their estimates compared to the lifespans of plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). These are thinner, but as previous studies have shown, could take decades to disintegrate, showing once again how long products made from plastic can last.

This is particularly important given the sheer volume of plastic making its way into the ocean. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at least eight million tons of plastic is added each year.

This waste can be found on remote islands in the Pacific and Atlantic, and makes up "plastic islands" twice the size of Texas. Not only have plastics been found in the oceans' deepest trenches, but it has been found in the body of a newly discovered species of animal that inhabits these trenches—and which biologists, consequently, decided to name Eurythenes plasticus.

As the amount of pollution continues to accumulate, the study's authors hopes their research on LEGO lifespan will encourage people to be more careful when it comes to discarding plastic products.

"It shows that many plastics will be rather persistent in the marine environment, and that nature finds it difficult to decompose and degrade the material," Turner told Newsweek. "Accordingly, plastic will continue to build up unless we intervene and reduce use or clean up the environment."

The article has been updated to include comments from Chris Reddy.

LEGO Bricks May Survive in the Oceans for 1,300 Years | Tech & Science