McDonald's pledged to phase out its plastic Happy Meal Toys, but environmental experts say the company's real problem is its use of beef

McDonald’s plans to "drastically" reduce the plastic in its Happy Meal toys worldwide by 2025. Dee-Ann Durbin / AP Photo
McDonald's is committed to phasing out fossil fuel plastics in its Happy Meal toys by 2025.
The company plans to use more paper and recyclable plastics in its toys.
However, experts wonder if this move will make a real difference for the environment.
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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 any real difference to the environment.
The fast food giant's announcement on September 21st means children can watch the billion children's toys it distributes each year being turned into 3D paper figurines and other toys made from recycled plastic or plant-based materials.
The company said in a statement Tuesday that its 2025 pledge could result in a 90 percent reduction in the fossil fuel-based plastic in its Happy Meal toys compared to its total number of materials used in 2018. It claimed that the benefits brought about by this change would be equivalent to about 700,000 people who would go without plastic for a year.
"Our next generation of customers care deeply about protecting the planet and what we can do to make our business more sustainable," said Jenny McColloch, McDonald’s chief sustainability officer, in the statement.
McDonald's first introduced the Happy Meal in 1979, but customers have been pushing for the company to be greener in recent years. For example, two British girls started a petition in 2019 to tell McDonald's and Burger King not to distribute plastic toys and received over 500,000 signatures.
In the UK and Ireland, toys that come with meals are no longer made from non-renewable plastics and the French Happy Meals no longer come with plastic toys. In the US, McDonald's has also introduced some paper-based toy options like books and Pokemon cards.
Environmental experts say more can be done
Environmental experts are wondering whether reducing the use of fossil fuel-based plastics in toys or replacing them with those made from paper will make a sufficient contribution to protecting and preserving the environment.
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However, environmental experts doubt whether McDonald's promise will really do anything for the environment.
Sharon Seah, a climate researcher at the ASEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Insider that while McDonald's has taken an "encouraging" move, it is only "part of the story" of how more sustainable action can be taken large corporations.
“Given that McDonald's is one of the largest franchise brands in the world, more can be done in terms of other activities, such as:
She added that reducing plastic in Happy Meals only "scratches the surface."
“The lifecycle of toys in general is still very poorly managed. Plastic is still plastic and is not a sufficiently biodegradable option. And in the case of paper, the pulp used to make these products is still a resource, ”said Seah.
Seah added that McDonald's could definitely offer more vegan options or dare to include plant-based meat in its meals to offset beef consumption.
It is estimated that McDonald's sells more than a billion pounds of beef each year in the United States. The company itself has cited beef production as the main source of its greenhouse gas emissions and admitted that it could reduce the carbon footprint of its beef production in the UK.
According to the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems, livestock, sheep and goat husbandry produced 178 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2018. For every serving of beef produced, more than six pounds of carbon is generated. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations also forecast in a 2013 study that if cows were their own land, they would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world.
Stephanie Feldstein, director of population and sustainability at the US-based nonprofit Center for Biodiversity, also called on McDonald's for using beef in a statement posted on Twitter.
"McDonald's serves billions of burgers every year, with massive consequences for our climate," said Feldstein. "If McDonald's really wants to bring about lasting change, it can't just stick to plastic-free toys. The company has to revise its menu, put the McPlant in every restaurant and also reduce the amount of beef it serves."
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