McDonald’s Corp. sells more than a billion Happy Meals a year and on Tuesday announced new global sustainability goals to reduce virgin fossil-fuel plastics in its Happy Meal toys 90% within the next five years.
Jenny McColloch, McDonald’s chief sustainability officer in a press conference Monday from the burger brand’s headquarters in Chicago, said McDonald’s ambition was “to drastically reduce plastics and offer sustainable Happy Meal toys globally by the end of 2025.
“Transitioning to more renewable, recycled and certified materials for our Happy Meal toys will result in an approximately 90% reduction in virgin fossil fuel-based plastic use against a 2018 baseline,” McColloch said. “For comparison, the average person uses more than 220 pounds of plastic annually, so this is equivalent to more than 650,000 individuals eliminating plastics from their lives each year.”
The McDonald’s Happy Meal, which was introduced in 1979, has seen some of its non-sustainable toys, such as Ty Inc.’s Teenie Beanie Babies from 1997 to 2000, enjoy extreme demand and become a part of the cultural fabric.
McDonald’s restaurants in France, Ireland and the United Kingdom are already deploying sustainable toys in their Happy Meals. In France, customers are given the option of a book or a toy.
The company said fan-favorite movie characters, such as Batman or the Minions, that used to be plastic figurines might reappear as three-dimensional paper figures that can be built and decorated.
“We're making sure that all of the pieces are very safe and sturdy. We're looking at all different materials, and the biggest part is that we really are CX-testing them — consumer experience testing them — with kids to make sure even the littlest hands can understand the instructions,” said Amy Murray, McDonald’s vice president of global marketing enablement.
“The toys are already right now in France and the U.K. and Ireland,” Murray said, “so we've been getting great learnings from there, and you'll see that the toys are going to be really safe, really sturdy.”
Murray noted that McDonald’s customer feedback had indicated deepening worries about sustainability.
“They were worried about the planet,” she said. “They're worried about animals. They're worried about climate change, and so we wanted to grow and be relevant with our customers. So we started making changes.
“You'll have noticed in the past, we've got books that are Happy Meal toys,” Murray said. “We've been reducing batteries all along. And now we're making bigger changes, because we heard from our customers that this is what they want us to do.”
McDonald’s new toys might included paper dinosaurs that kids can construct or toys — both hard and plush — made from recycled or fibrous plant materials.
“We have a long history of making commitments in sustainability at McDonald's, from our food to how we operate our restaurants and our impact in communities,” said McColloch. “What I am really excited about in today's announcement is that it's an amazing combination of that joy and fun for families as well as taking care of the planet.” The team behind the project includes scientists, toy makers and suppliers, she said.
Murray added that she’s worked with McDonald’s for 24 years and with the sustainable Happy Meal toy project for three years.
“For it to all come to fruition and be announced today is really exciting,” she said. “I'm excited for parents and for kids to see all of the work that we've been doing, and it's just a huge step for us. We are drastically reducing the amount of plastic in our toys, and it's going to have a huge impact on the planet.”
McColloch said the company sees flexibility in its toy innovation as it moves toward the 2025 goal.
“The materials in our toys will come from a mixture of fiber-based materials such as paper in our puzzles or construction materials but also some renewable plastics and plastics derived from plants,” McColloch said. “At this stage we're not setting a limit on the mix of those more sustainable materials, but we do anticipate reducing the amount of virgin fossil-fuel-based plastic by over 90% by that 2025 timeline.”
The McDonald’s executives said they plan to make the sustainable toys “cost neutral” for franchisees.
McDonald’s has more than 39,000 locations in 119 countries.
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