Happy Meal Toys Ensnared in Anti-Plastics Push

U.K. petition urges McDonald’s to trash the plastic giveaways.

July 11, 2019

LONDON—A British petition calling for McDonald’s to discontinue distribution of plastic toys in Happy Meals has garnered more than 325,000 signatures, and the country’s environment minister is pressing the case, according to The Wall Street Journal.

International concerns over plastic in oceans and landfills are growing, and consumers are viewing single-use products, such as straws and coffee cups, as unnecessary or short-lived. Many toys, including Happy Meals freebees, typically can’t be recycled because they’re made of multiple types of plastic or plastic mixed with other materials. Parents say they often end up in the trash.

“You open a plastic bag to get another plastic item, which is played with for five minutes and then probably goes in the bin,” said Rachael Wood, whose daughters Ella and Caitlin, ages 10 and 7, started the petition late last year. The petition also targets Burger King.

Last year, McDonald’s established a global working group to study environmental issues related to Happy Meal packaging and toys, according to Elaine Strunk, head of global sustainability, McDonald’s. The group is exploring ways to make McDonald’s toys from a single type of plastic so they can be easily recycled and is researching whether some renewable materials could replace plastic in the toys.

In the U.K., McDonald’s said in June it would swap out two hard plastic toys for books for a six-to-eight-week period. Plans for the second half of 2019 include some soft toys and board games, amounting to a 60% reduction in hard plastic compared with the first six months.

The change was based on a variety of factors, including the popularity of the books and was decided before the petition surfaced, according to a spokeswoman.

“Given the focus on plastics, you probably will see a bit more of a mix going forward,” she said, adding that McDonald’s hasn’t made a long-term commitment to scale back on plastic toys tied to Happy Meals.

A spokeswoman for Burger King, which offers plastic toys with its King Jr. kids’ meals, said the company is working to develop alternative toy solutions, but provided no details.

Britain is a hot spot for plastic concerns. In September, McDonald’s replaced plastic straws with paper across its 1,361 outlets in the U.K. and Ireland. The burger chain recently removed plastic lids from McFlurry ice creams and moved to cardboard containers for salads in the U.K., one of its most established international markets. McDonald’s is now testing plastic straw alternatives in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In Japan, McDonald’s collected 1.27 million used plastic toys through drop boxes in 2,900 restaurants during a 10-week trial last year and recycled them into trays for its restaurants. The company is researching ways to scale this and make it permanent.

U.K. Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey last year publicly called for McDonald’s to scrap plastic toys in Happy Meals and has since met with the company. “Every nudge will help,” she said. Petitions in previous years in various countries, asking companies to stop distributing plastic toys, haven’t gotten much traction.

While Wendy’s and Sonic also give away toys with children’s meals, others have scrapped the practice, including Jack in the Box in 2011 and Taco Bell in 2013.

Meanwhile other companies have batted away concerns about plastic toys. A spokesperson for Italian candy maker Ferrero International SA, which distributes more than 3.5 billion plastic toys in its chocolate Kinder eggs every year, describes its toys as an “integral and inseparable part of the product” and “durable goods, not single-use plastics.”