McDonald’s Ends Plastic Happy Meal Toys in the UK and Ireland; An Ominous Sign for Plastic


McDonald’s decision to ban plastics in Happy Meal toys is a shot across the bow to the global toy industry.
Last September, I wrote an article about the push-back against petroleum-based plastics in the United Kingdom. I titled it “The U.K.’s Big Plastic Meltdown; Burger King Ends Toys,” and it described the decision by Burger King to end the use of plastic toys in its kid’s meals. The Burger King decision followed the creation of a petition by two young British girls, which accrued a whopping half-million signatures in two weeks. It certainly appears that Children and their parents are becoming progressively concerned about plastic elements showing up in the world’s oceans and its sea life.

At the time, though Burger King made a decisive decision, its competitor McDonald’s — not so much. Here is how I put it in the article:

Based upon headlines like these, it appears that Burger King is wisely sympathetic to the angst children are feeling. How is McDonald’s reacting? Pretty lamely if you want to know the truth.

In select stores, a child can choose to exchange their Happy Meal toy for a piece of fruit. Sure, a child is going to exchange a toy for fruit…right, that’s going to happen. 

It’s easy to understand why McDonald’s is being cautious. Happy Meals are a significant piece of business for McDonald’s and its suppliers. But McDonald’s response to the petition evidences a failure to understand the very children they service. 

I went on to recommend that “…smart toy companies should get behind kids’ efforts and support programs that are working to reduce greenhouse emissions.”

That was then and this is now and McDonald’s announced yesterday its decision to remove non-sustainable plastics from its Happy Meals in the UK and Ireland. Here is how McDonald put it on their website in a post entitled, “McDonald’s pledges to remove non-sustainable hard plastic from its iconic Happy Meal“: “From 2021, every Happy Meal in the UK and Ireland will include either a soft toy, paper-based  toy or book.” In addition, “From May 2020, McDonald’s will run a five-week nationwide toy amnesty, collecting any unwanted plastic toys in its 1,350 restaurants and recycling the returned plastic into play equipment for Ronald McDonald House Charities across the UK and Ireland.”

McDonald’s decision to ban plastics in Happy Meal toys is a shot across the bow to the global toy industry. McDonald’s produces well over a billion Happy Meal toys each year. Because of their sheer mass, they have a gravity pull that will force the toy industry to find replacements for non-sustainable plastics far sooner than later.

I predict that we will see a ban on non-sustainable plastics within the next five years. There is no time to waste. Whatever efforts are currently being taken to enhance the quality of bioplastics must be ramped up. 

2 thoughts

  1. I applaud their decision!!! We all need to think responsibly, either small or big, we have an impact on our world. It’s up to each one of us to be the change we want to see. This applies to everything, not only environmental issues.
    By the way, they did NOT say the meal will come WITHOUT a toy, they said the toy will not be made of “non-sustainable hard plastic” There is a BIG difference there!

  2. McDonald’s in making a mistake here. UK has a history of these moral panics driven by the sensationalism of their media. They generally flame out when the next supposed moral crisis comes along. Half a million signatures is a lot but do people really mean it? We have lots of examples these days of how online activism and reality do not align.
    When I was at Disney, there was the child obesity panic and Disney decided to end Happy Meal promotions and imposed draconian restrictions on its food licensing, restrictions that the Parks refused to comply with because of the impact to their business. A decade and a half later, Disney is back in Happy Meals and those food restrictions are gone. It led to some good things that lasted like Disney licensing fresh fruit, but it turned out that people will buy sugary treats with or without the Disney license.
    Then there is the science of this. McDonald’s Happy Meal toys are not contributing in any meaningful way to climate change. The entire climate change problem comes down to energy and even moreso transportation. You can make an argument for Happy Meal toys contributing to landfills and not being biodegrabable. Look if biodegradable plastics really work, are cost effect, and allow you to make a comparable toy, then by all means, do it. But I am not convinced that is the case.
    My guess, within 5 yrs plastic toys are back in Happy Meals. The meal without the toy really sucks.

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