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Enough of the plastic – McDonald’s should replace its Happy Meal toys with books

Lately, a visit to McDonald’s has been leaving a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s not due to the coffee. It is the plastic toys that are given away as part of the Happy Meal and summarily tossed aside that are making me think twice about passing through those golden arches.

I had never realised the scale of the waste until I had kids, and the incessant fighting between the older two reached the stage where only the promise off a Happy Meal would ensure a ceasefire.

The kids were excited as they each pulled a plastic toy from a plastic bag within the cardboard Happy Meal box. The excitement lasted the duration of the meal, after which the toys were discarded under the back seats for me to fish out (along with at least 16 unmatched socks, 13 textas, a teaspoon and many, many sultanas) when I next cleaned the car.

As a mother, I know all about wasteful plasticky toys, and I have resigned myself to their reality after the first few birthday parties. But this was next level. In these days in which Australia is groaning under the weight of recycling, not to mention the precarious state of the planet more generally, it seems obscenely irresponsible to continually introduce so much more useless plastic into the world.

I mentioned my concerns to a friend whose child was holding a blue plastic Happy Meal figure I remembered collecting from the foot of my children’s car seat months earlier. He had picked it up at an op shop, where it was thrown it in for free with another purchase. He told me something extraordinary: that McDonald’s was the biggest distributor of toys in the world.

Not quite believing this could be the case, I searched the internet and sure enough, it appeared to be true. According to USA Today: “McDonald’s is the largest distributor of toys in the world, and by far. 20% of all sales at McDonald’s include a toy, with one being passed out with each Happy Meal the company sells.”

In some parts of the world, McDonald’s has toyed with the idea of replacing the plastic figurines and toys handed out with the Happy Meal with a book. It happened for a limited time in the US and the UK, and last year in New Zealand it distributed 800,000 Roald Dahl books with its Happy Meals during a six-week campaign. It was a big marketing success, with news of the giveaway attracting extensive media attention. However, they were just temporary exercises before the usual plastic toys returned.

While producing any more stuff is unattractive to me, given the current climate struggles and the way we are drowning in poor quality goods shipped to Australia and sold ridiculously cheaply, at least this was an admirable move to improve literacy and offer a more useful and enduring product, which benefited consumers for longer than the drive home. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the plastic toys were replaced with books permanently in Australian McDonald’s?

I realise that the deals that go on between McDonald’s and the companies that make the toys are complex, with negotiations for the deals lasting up to two years, and that most toys market a movie or licensed product that attract more sales to a certain company that has fought hard for its right to be distributed in a Happy Meal. Realistically, McDonald’s is no charity, or education provider. And, the production of books is expensive, and who says they won’t be tossed aside just as the plastic toys were?

But, I believe that a book offers far more for consumers than a cheap plastic toy ever could, and it can be easily kept and reused. It’s also hard to see that they wouldn’t be far less damaging for the environment, especially if they were recyclable, or made from recycled paper.  There is no reason why the book couldn’t be licensed in the same way as the toys.

I don’t think I’m being entirely idealistic by hoping that books can replace plastic toys in Happy Meals. There is also an economic imperative involved in cutting down on waste. Surely, a healthy planet is far more hospitable to those cows that will eventually become all beef patties? And the tide of public opinion surely supports companies taking a more responsible approach to plastic waste. It not only makes social, but also economic, sense.

In the UK, Environment minister Therese Coffey called McDonald’s to replace their Happy Meal toys with games that children can play on their phones instead. It’s not a bad suggestion, as this would remove any manufacturing costs. Another digital alternative could be eBooks, potentially a boon for authors publicised in this way, along with the environment and cranky parents sick of fishing toys from underneath car seats.

In the past, McDonald’s has shown it is not without a social conscience in Australia, with its Ronald McDonald House proving a godsend for seriously ill children and their families and its annual McHappy Day supporting Ronald McDonald House Charities and local charities. It has also responded to calls for improved nutrition in its meals, introducing salads, fruit and calorie displays to improve the health perception of its restaurants. Perhaps the company’s next concern will be the health of the environment … and the sanity of frustrated parents.

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