I took my kids to McDonalds for the first time last summer. We were exploring world foods at the time*, so I deliberately refrained from expressing my own opinion of McDonalds so they could appreciate it with an open mind. As it happens, they unwrapped their Happy Meals and came to many of the same conclusions as I did long ago. “That doesn’t really look like the picture.” “Why doesn’t this meat taste of anything?” And of the toy, “What’s that supposed to be?”
We returned the toys unopened so they could give them to somebody else, but as we were leaving I noticed them abandoned on other tables. The attendant swept them up with the wrappers and boxes and it all went in the bin together.
McDonalds toys have always been variable of course. Some of them are ‘keepers’ and on a different day my kids might have been very excited about them. But by and large they are disposable. They’re a little plastic novelty, and if they aren’t thrown away on the day they’re bought, they will be before long. They clutter children’s bedrooms, and accumulate in charity shop 10p boxes. Ultimately they end up in landfill, where – since they are plastic – they will remain for thousands of years.
And there are a lot of them. McDonalds is technically the world’s largest distributor of toys. That may remain the case for a while, but there has been some progress recently. From 2021, at least they will no longer be plastic.
This might just be in the UK, you’ll have to let me know if it’s happening where you are – but McDonalds have announced a series of changes to their approach to toys. From May this year, you can ask for a book instead of a toy when you order a Happy Meal. Starting next year, all plastic toys will be gone, and there will be books, paper toys and soft toys instead.
The chain is also running a ‘toy amnesty’ to flush out all the unwanted junk down the back of the bed and at the bottom of the toy box. From May to June this year, there will be collection boxes for plastic toys in-store. They will be recycled and turned into play equipment for McDonalds play centres.
I suspect a large part of the reason for this change is the sterling work by Ella and Caitlin McEwan. They launched a petition last year, aged 7 and 9 at the time. It racked up half a million signatures, and they appeared in numerous news articles and in the campaigning TV programme War on Plastic. In their episode, the two girls gathered up fast food chain toys from their friends at school. They made them into a big mobile display that they could take to the corporate headquarters and clearly demonstrate the ricidulous amount of unwanted plastic toys they were responsible for.
McDonalds have taken a little longer, but Burger King responded fairly swiftly, moving to eliminate plastic toys last year and also putting amnesty bins in their stores. They acknowledged that the McEwans’ campaign was a factor, a remarkable win for activist children. Like the case of Walkers and their crisp packets, it’s hopeful evidence that ordinary people with a focused idea and a little persistence can help to bring about significant change.
- Picture from the Jurassic Plastic exhibition, Sydney.
*Last summer I had a project with the kids to see how many different foods we could eat from around the world, without leaving Luton. We had a map of the world and ticked off flatbread from the Afghan bakery in Bury Park, sushi from Japan, and maandazis from the Kenyan cafe in the indoor market. Among the 50 countries we ‘visited’ was the United States, which was represented by McDonalds. Apologies to my American friends.