One of the most beautiful and affecting environmentally-related Twitter accounts is Lego Lost at Sea. Most often, it first presents many followers with a hauntingly eroded plastic figure – like an unfinished painting by Charles Munch – and asks them to identify it. Very quickly, it will be identified as, for example, something a burger company gave away seven years ago to promote a Hollywood animation. And the sea-ravaged figure will be reposted, alongside a picture showing the bright, banal object it originally was. The effect is simultaneously joyous and horrifying.
The book that came out of the twitter Account, Adrift: The Curious Tale of the Lego Lost at Sea has a similar effect. It traces the afterlives of the nearly 5 million pieces of Lego that were in containers swept off the Tokio Express cargo ship in 1997. Many of these have washed up on the beaches of Cornwall, which is where Tracey Williams – the woman behind Lego Lost at Sea – started to find them shortly afterwards. Writers Rebel, long-term admirers of her painstaking and affecting work, are delighted to have secured an interview with Tracey, to coincide with this week’s Oceans on the Brink event.
Lego Lost at Sea seems to have been an immediate hit on Twitter. But how did it come about?
I’d always been intrigued by the story behind the Lego spill. When I moved to Cornwall in around 2010, I became part of a network of beach cleaners. Because I was keen to find out who else was finding the Lego, which pieces they’d found and how far they had drifted, I set up a facebook page called Lego Lost At Sea. The Twitter page followed but has since become my main method of communication. I found many kindred spirits on Twitter – fellow beachcombers, archaeologists, mudlarks, writers, artists, museum professionals, journalists, scientists, oceanographers, palaeontologists, etc. And of course, many are brilliant at identifying some of our mystery finds. But it was through Twitter that the book came about.
And what were your hopes when you began posting?
Originally I was just keen to find out who else had found Lego from the spill and show anyone who might be interested what else had turned up. But it evolved over the years. I guess it started as a story about a lost shipping container but morphed into an account about plastic in the ocean. I’m intrigued by the changing nature of beachcombing and I think many others are too; how once we searched for sea glass, driftwood and shells and now we hunt for plastic. It’s interesting, isn’t it – at what point does a plastic ‘treasure’ become an archaeological artefact?
You manage to maintain a very fine balance, in Adrift, between the joy of beachcombing for particularly rare Lego pieces (the black octopus) and the sorrow of plastic pollution more generally. What are your feelings when you stand on the seashore and look out at the ocean?
A mix of emotions. Sometimes, when I stare out to sea, I find it hard to believe there is so much plastic out there. When I stand on the clifftops in north Cornwall and gaze into the distance, it all looks so clean, so perfect. Sparkling blue seas, white capped waves, sea pinks carpeting the cliffs. Pristine, beautiful. And then you look at a beach below and it’s covered in plastic – it’s such a contrast. That said, the beaches aren’t like that all the time. The problem is particularly bad after winter storms, when debris is swept in and plastic trapped in sand and between rocks is released by surging waves.
Did you learn anything really unexpected whilst you were writing and researching Adrift?
I learnt more after the book was published, funnily enough. I wrote much of it during lockdown so was unable to visit many of the people and research institutes/history centres I’d originally planned to. New information did emerge after publication, however, including the revelation that nearly 30 Lego dragons had been found at Poldhu – the Poldhu hoard! So that will have to go in book two…
Have you noticed changes in what people are finding on the beaches of the UK, since the water companies have been allowed to let so much sewage escape? What’s the state of things right now?
We’ve always found sewage related debris – tampon applicators, wet wipes and sanitary towels as well as medical lancets, dental flossers, etc – objects that people flush down the loo. I was quite intrigued recently to discover that some of the distinctive medical lancets or finger-prickers we find aren’t recent losses but from a letting device known as the ‘guillotine’, used in the 1980s. These lancets don’t float so once flushed down the loo make their way out to sea and settle on the seabed, occasionally washing ashore with the kelp, along with all the other old debris that lies on the seabed, rubber strips from lobster and crab pots, broken net floats, crabbing line frames, old vinyl toys, the remains of fishing nets, ‘vintage’ jelly shoes, goggles, snorkelling masks, fins and ancient Smartie lids, etc.
As well as sewage, water companies have also released large numbers of biobeads into the ocean. These are a huge problem here on beaches in Cornwall and elsewhere. (For anyone interested in reading more, this report was produced by Rame Peninsular Beach Care/Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition. In particular section 8.1, for quantities.)
Are there any books or other writing about the sea that you’d recommend? Ones that you came across in researching Adrift?
Rose George’s Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the invisible industry that brings you 90% of Everything and Curtis Ebbesmeyer’s and Eric Scigliano’s Flotsametrics and the Floating World. I’ve read and reread Tom Neale’s An Island to Oneself many times. While researching Adrift, I read quite a few scientific papers too.
Chris Jordan’s heartbreaking images of the Laysan albatrosses on Midway Atoll, with their stomachs full of bottle tops and lighters, had a profound effect on me and many of my fellow beachcombers/beach cleaners. I recall going down to a local beach in Cornwall around that time and seeing a magnificent gannet strangled by a net, lying amid a sea of plastic. I went back to my car and fetched a box of binliners and filled five bags up there and then. I later picked up over 10,000 bottle tops from three Cornish beaches. I find it hard to visit a beach and not pick up plastic now.
What are your plans for the future of Lego Lost at Sea?
There are quite a few projects and podcasts in the pipeline. We’re working on an exhibition, which will be largely based around the book, and have been approached by a film maker. We’d really like to find out if the shipping containers lost overboard from the Tokio Express still exist or have long since disintegrated and are in touch with a shipwreck hunter/side scan sonar expert who thinks that if they’re still out there he will be able to find them. There are so many bits of Lego from the Tokio Express that we’ve never seen – such as the sharks – and we would love to know if they’re still trapped in boxes at the bottom of the ocean. There’s also talk of an exhibition of images at a contemporary gallery. We’re working too on a scientific paper that will look at how far the Lego from the spill has spread – not just the Lego that originally floated, but also the Lego that sank to the bottom of the sea and is now being swept long distances by ocean floor currents.
Writer and beachcomber Tracey Williams has always been intrigued by chance finds and the stories and folklore behind them, from shells and sea glass discovered on childhood holidays in Cornwall to flints and fossils unearthed in fields. In 1997, after finding thousands of pieces of sea-themed Lego washed up on beaches in South Devon, she became interested in the changing nature of beachcombing and began to research the age and origin of many of the man-made items she discovered. Her plastic finds have since been described as ‘a colourful catalogue of our times’. She lives in Cornwall in an old house by the sea with her dog Jess, surrounded by piles of books and an ever-growing mound of beach finds.
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