What if McDonald’s ditched all plastic in Happy Meals?

As the mother of a 5-year-old, my house is littered with cheap plastic McDonald’s Happy Meal toys that will soon end up in the trash. The story hasn’t changed much since my own childhood three decades ago. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

A designer in Malaysia has reimagined and prototyped a Happy Meal so it’s made entirely from eco-friendly materials, including the toy, which is made from wood. And far from being dull and boring, this Happy Meal is full of beautiful illustrations and fun, interactive components. The project begs the question: Why isn’t McDonald’s transitioning to a planet-positive Happy Meal like this one?

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

McDonald’s says it’s making efforts to make its Happy Meals greener. In September, it announced that it would reduce fossil fuel-based plastic in its Happy Meal toys by 90% by 2025 (compared to a 2018 baseline). However, it will continue to make these toys out of either recycled plastic or plastic sourced from renewable materials like corn–neither of which is biodegradable. So when these toys are inevitably tossed in the trash, they still end up in the landfill or ocean, where they don’t decompose, but break down into smaller and smaller fragments. These micro-plastics end up in the food chain, poisoning animals and humans. This is an enormous environmental problem when you consider that McDonald’s sells more than a billion toys a year worldwide.

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

Regina Lim, a designer in Malaysia, decided not to wait for McDonald’s. As she was designing her box, she was inspired by the forests of East Malaysia where she grew up. The box, along with the packaging for McNuggets, fries, and drinks, all feature delightful, colorful images of flora and fauna. While this is just a prototype, Lim says ideally McDonald’s would manufacture the paper products from recycled paper, perhaps even embedded with wildflower seeds.

The toy inside is a trio of wooden trees; there are also cardboard cutouts of a giraffe, elephant, and zebra, which the child can assemble into 3D animals. As a final flourish, the box itself unfolds to reveal a story about how seeds grow into trees. “My parents took me out into nature as a child, and I thought it was important to teach the next generation to appreciate these spaces, which are dying off,” she tells me. “But I think it’s possible to teach kids about sustainability in a fun way.” Going forward, Lim imagines McDonald’s creating boxes that highlight the company’s different sustainability efforts, like sourcing beef and supporting young activists.

McDonald’s didn’t comment specifically on Lim’s design. But when we reached out, the company said it was rethinking many aspects of the toy’s design, including how to create more durable toys that kids will want to play with for a long time. When it comes to the materials in these toys, the company said that waste and recycling infrastructure varies significantly in each market. McDonald’s said it’s exploring how to create Happy Meal toys out of materials that can be recovered in these systems, such as reducing the number of materials in each toy.

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

For now, the company said it is committed to using plastics from renewable and recycled sources partly to create demand for these plastics. (It’s worth noting that some environmental experts say that recycled plastic is problematic because it also creates demand for virgin plastic, effectively supporting the fossil fuel industry.)

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

Lim says she was inspired to take on this project because she’s observed how big chains like McDonalds have been under fire from consumers for their poor track record on the environment. “Fast food chains have been criticized when it comes to sustainability, and the problem is only getting worse,” she says. “At the same time, if big companies like McDonalds can make small changes, it can make a big difference because of the impact and influence they have.”

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

As she designed this box, she paid attention to some of these small tweaks that would be easy for McDonald’s to make. For instance, the iconic Happy Meal box has a clear design flaw: It doesn’t fit a small soda, one of the drink options. As a result, the drink is often packaged in a separate bag or drink holder. So Lim redesigned the box to ensure you don’t need any extraneous packaging, while keeping the aesthetics of the box instantly recognizable.

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

Lim recognizes that even if McDonald’s manufactured wooden toys at scale, it’s unlikely they would be as cheap as plastic, which is one of the cheaper materials on the market. (That said, in France, McDonald’s eliminated plastic toys from Happy Meals earlier this year, in favor of paper-based toys like trading cards and coloring books; McDonald’s doesn’t have plans to roll out a similar program in the U.S.)

Still, from a business perspective, Lim argues that a small cost increase might be worthwhile for McDonald’s. “It makes sense for McDonald’s to pour some of its profits into making its Happy Meal much more sustainably,” she says. “It would also help McDonald’s counter all of the criticism it is facing and build its brand image.”

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