McDonald’s Says It Is Phasing Out Its Plastic Happy Meal Toys, but Critics Say Toys Are Not the Problem — Beef Is

  • McDonald’s has pledged to phase out the use of fossil-fuel based plastics in its Happy Meal toys by 2025.
  • The company intends to use more paper and recyclable plastics in its toys.
  • However, experts are questioning if this move will make a real difference to the environment.

McDonald’s has pledged to phase out the use of fossil-fuel-based plastics in the toys that come with its Happy Meals by the end of 2025, but experts say the move won’t make a real difference to the environment.

The fast-food giant’s announcement on September 21 means kids could see the one billion children’s toys that it distributes every year being converted into 3D paper figures and other toys made of recycled plastic or plant-derived materials.

The company said in a statement on Tuesday that its 2025 pledge could result in a 90% reduction of fossil fuel-based plastic in its Happy Meal toys, in comparison with its 2018 tally of materials used. It claimed that the benefits wrought by this change would be equivalent to close to 700,000 people ditching the use of plastic for a year. 

“Our next generation of customers care deeply about protecting the planet and what we can do to help make our business more sustainable,” said McDonald’s Chief Sustainability Officer Jenny McColloch in the statement.

McDonald’s first introduced the Happy Meal in 1979, but customers have been pushing for the company to be more environmentally friendly in recent years. For instance, two British girls started a petition in 2019 to ask McDonald’s and Burger King to not distribute plastic toys and got over 500,000 signatures. 

Now, toys that come with the meals in the UK and Ireland do not use non-renewable plastics in their making, and French Happy Meals no longer come with plastic toys. In the US, McDonald’s has also rolled out some paper-based toy options, like books and Pokemon cards

Environmental experts say more can be done

happy meal

Environmental experts are questioning if reducing fossil-fuel based plastics in toys, or replacing them with paper ones will make a sufficient difference in protecting and preserving the environment.

David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Environmental experts are questioning, however, if McDonald’s pledge will make a real difference to the environment.

Sharon Seah, a climate change researcher in the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told Insider that while McDonald’s has made an “encouraging” move, it’s only “part of the story” of how more sustainable actions can be taken by big corporations.

“Given that McDonald’s is one of the world’s largest franchising brands, more can be done in terms of other operations, like reducing their carbon footprint while moving products across supply chains,” Seah said. 

She added that the reduction of plastics in Happy Meals is merely “scratching the surface.”

“The life cycle of toys, in general, is still very poorly managed. Plastic is still plastic and isn’t a sufficiently biodegradable option. And with paper, the pulp used to create these products is still a resource,” Seah said.

Seah added that McDonald’s could most definitely offer more vegan options, or venture into offering plant-based meat in their meals to offset its beef consumption.   

It is estimated that McDonald’s sells more than a billion pounds of beef in the US every year. The company itself has cited beef production as a key source of its greenhouse gas emissions, and admitted that the carbon footprint of its beef production in the UK could be reduced

According to the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, the farming of cattle, sheep, and goats produced 178 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2018. More than six pounds of carbon are generated for each serving of beef produced. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization also projected in a 2013 study that if cows were their own country, they would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the US-based nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, also called out McDonald’s for their use of beef in a statement posted on Twitter

“McDonald’s serves billions of burgers a year, with massive consequences for our climate,” said Feldstein. “If McDonald’s really wants to create sustainable change, it can’t stop at plastic-free toys. The company needs to overhaul its menu, put the McPlant in every restaurant, and reduce the amount of beef it serves too.” 


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