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Happier Happy Meals, As McDonald’s Reduces Use of Plastics

By Gary Symons

TLL Editor in Chief

The world’s leading fast food chain McDonald’s is making sustainable changes to its Happy Meal toys, which will impact licensors.

McDonald’s pledged Tuesday to “significantly” reduce the use of plastics in its Happy Meal toys worldwide. The move follows a similar program launched only in the United Kingdom after McDonald’s faced a wave of criticism over environmental concerns.

The changes mean that McDonald’s will, in most cases, offer three-dimensional paper-based toys that kids can put together themselves. Some of these, such as Pokémon trading cards, have already been seen in the US and Canadian markets, but McDonald’s says that trend will be strengthened. For example, the company says it might offer mini-board games, with the plastic pieces swapped out for paper-based pieces.

Toy expert Richard Gottlieb, founder and CEO of Global Toy Experts, wrote in Global Toy News that the changes at Mcdonald’s will be profound for the licensing and toy industries.

“In terms of units, McDonald’s is the world’s biggest toy manufacturer by a magnitude,” said Gottlieb. “Each Happy Meal version sells in the billions. That is why the company’s decision to move to corn-based plastics is so significant.

“To this point, eco-plastics have been a nice idea but lacking in the look and feel of the petroleum-based product,” Gottlieb added. “McDonald’s is, by moving to green plastics, essentially creating a new industry that will be big enough to develop plastics that are not just green but malleable and colorful. Based upon McDonald’s sheer scale, they may be introducing a whole new era for the world’s farmers, toy companies, and families.”

The Happy Meal toys given away free with a child’s meal has been a tradition at McDonald’s since it was introduced in 1979, but for environmentalists concerned with plastic waste, the program has been controversial.

McDonald’s Happy Meal toys have been a reliable source of licensing deals since 1979, but those deals will change as the fast food giant is eliminating plastic toys and packaging. Photo courtesy of McDonald’s Restaurants.

The plastic hit the fan two years ago when, in 2019, two young girls in England demanded that both McDonald’s and its rival Burger King stop distributing plastic toys. The story gained traction, and a subsequent petition that got 500,000+ signatures forced McDonald’s to look at alternatives for its UK restaurants.

As a result, that same year McDonald’s began testing out alternatives to plastics, such as small books, board games, trading cards and even plush toys. Beginning this year, McDonald’s went even farther, banning all toys in Happy Meals that are made from non-recycled or non-renewable types of plastic. The program was extended to France in February this year.

Combined, these changes have allowed McDonald’s to reduce its use of virgin plastics by 30% since the program began in 2019. Considering the company distributes more than billions of toys per year, the reduction in plastic waste is considered significant.

When the program was implemented, McDonald’s Chief Marketing Officer for the UK and Ireland, Gareth Helm, said the change in Happy Meal toys was the beginning of a new wave of sustainability programs.

“We care passionately about the environment and are committed to reducing plastic across our business including within our Happy Meal,” said Helm. “Families have high expectations of us and we’re working as hard as we can to give them the confidence that their Happy Meal is as sustainable as possible. Getting that right is a big responsibility, but we believe the changes we’re making today have the potential to make a big difference.”

Helm also said McDonald’s wanted to become an example of positive change for other companies and for individuals, rather than being seen as contributing to waste.

“We want to use our reach and influence to bring customers with us on the journey towards more sustainable living,” Helm said. “Most importantly, we’re committed to listening to our customers and working with our suppliers to ensure we are taking every possible opportunity to provide quality food sourced, made, packaged and enjoyed responsibly.”

Looking forward to the future, McDonald’s says it intends to reduce total use of plastics by 90% by 2025, as compared to the amounts used in 2018. Competing fast food chain Burger King is making similar moves, saying it plans to completely eliminate all non-biodegradable plastic toys in all markets by the end of 2025.

Both companies are also working on reducing plastic and other types of waste by testing the use of reusable packaging in a number of test markets.

That, of course, will change the nature of licensing agreements for any company working with McDonald’s, as the licensor will have to provide a product that fits into the restauranteur’s sustainability goals.

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