As a 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. History hasn’t changed much since my own childhood three decades ago. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A designer in Malaysia has redesigned and prototyped a Happy Meal so that it is made entirely from environmentally friendly materials, including the toy, which is made of wood. And far from boring and boring, this Happy Meal is full of beautiful illustrations and fun, interactive components. The project begs the question: why isn’t McDonald’s switching to a planet-positive Happy Meal like this?
McDonald’s says it is 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 benchmark). However, he will continue to make these toys from recycled plastic or plastic from renewable materials like corn, neither of which is biodegradable. So when these toys inevitably get thrown in the trash, they always end up in the landfill or in the ocean, where they don’t break down, but break down into smaller and smaller fragments. These microplastics end up in the food chain, poisoning animals and humans. This is a huge environmental problem considering that McDonald’s sells over a billion toys a year around the world.
Regina Lim, a designer in Malaysia, decided not to wait for McDonald’s. When designing her box, she was inspired by the forests of East Malaysia where she grew up. The box, as well as the packaging for the McNuggets, fries and drinks, all feature delicious, colorful images of flora and fauna. Although this is only a prototype, Lim says that ideally McDonald’s would make the paper products from recycled paper, perhaps even encrusted 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. Finally, the box itself unfolds to reveal a story about how seeds grow in trees. “My parents took me to nature when I was a kid, and I thought it was important to teach the next generation to appreciate these dying spaces,” 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 showcase the company’s various sustainability efforts, such as sourcing beef and supporting young activists.
McDonald’s did not specifically comment 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 make more durable toys that kids will want to play with for a long time. When it comes to the materials for these toys, the company said the infrastructure for waste and recycling varies widely from market to market. McDonald’s said it is exploring how to create Happy Meal toys from materials that can be salvaged from these systems, such as reducing the number of materials in each toy.
For now, the company has said it is committed to using plastics from renewable sources and partly recycled to create demand for these plastics. (It should be noted that some environmental experts say recycled plastic is problematic because it also creates demand for virgin plastic, effectively supporting the fossil fuel industry.)
Lim says she was inspired to take on this project because she observed how big chains like McDonalds have been criticized by consumers for their poor environmental record. “Fast food chains have been criticized for 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.”
When designing this box, she paid attention to some of those little tweaks that would be easy for McDonald’s to do. For example, the iconic Happy Meal tin has an obvious 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 cup holder. So Lim redesigned the box to make sure you don’t need foreign packaging, while still keeping the box’s aesthetic instantly recognizable.
Lim acknowledges that even though McDonald’s made wooden toys on a large scale, they are unlikely to be as cheap as plastic, which is one of the cheapest materials on the market. (That said, in France, McDonald’s phased out plastic toys from Happy Meals earlier this year, in favor of paper toys like collectible cards and coloring books; McDonald’s has no plans to roll out a similar program in the United States)
Still, from a business standpoint, Lim argues that a small increase in costs might be worth it for McDonald’s. “It makes sense that McDonald’s would devote a portion of its profits to making its Happy Meal in a much more sustainable way,” she says. “It would also help McDonald’s counter any criticism it faces and strengthen its brand image.”