In the climactic scene of “Toy Story 3,” Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the crew narrowly escape death when a remote-controlled claw lifts them from an incinerator just before flames engulf them.
Now Burger King is set to enact an alternative ending — collecting, sorting and chopping up hundreds of thousands of tiny toys, before melting them into hot plastic at a factory in northern England.
To anyone with childhood memories of beloved action figures, this may sound like an act of carnage — more Dante’s “Inferno” than Disney Pixar. But the “meltdown” is intended as a grand environmental gesture. Faced with growing public concern over the proliferation of single-use plastic, Burger King has vowed to stop giving away plastic toys with children’s meals in Britain and has encouraged customers to deposit old toys in collection bins at the chain’s locations there.
In December, the recycling firm Pentatonic will melt those orphaned action figures, then turn the raw material into playground equipment and reusable tray tables. Burger King plans to eliminate non-biodegradable toys from all its restaurants worldwide by 2025.
“That might be a shame for a tiny minority of people,” said Alasdair Murdoch, the chief executive of Burger King in the United Kingdom. “But it’s very clear that long term, people think that we’re doing the right thing.”
For decades, fast-food toys have operated as marketing tools designed to get children eating French fries and Chicken McNuggets. Politicians and public health advocates in the United States have repeatedly tried to ban them, arguing that fast-food marketing aimed at children contributes to obesity.
Those health concerns never swayed the major fast-food companies, but a viral British petition arguing that the toys “harm animals and pollute the sea” has made a stronger impression. It’s part of a growing public backlash against single-use, disposable plastic items like straws and cups, as well as myriad other plastic objects piling up in landfills, littering beaches and floating in oceans.
Burger King is not the only chain contemplating a toyless future. In 2018, McDonald’s established a task force to explore “ways to lessen the impact of the toys,” according to Elaine Strunk, the chain’s director of sustainability.
Based on the task force’s recommendations, McDonald’s has moved to scale back the distribution of plastic toys in Britain and other markets outside the United States, although it has stopped short of pledging to discontinue them. In October, McDonald’s offered its British customers Happy Meals with a choice of a toy or a bag of fruit.
Next year, children at its British locations will be able to choose between a toy or a book. In the past, McDonald’s has handed out Roald Dahl books, as well as stories about dinosaurs by the English author Cressida Cowell.
“We are on a journey across all of our categories and then beyond to make more sustainable environmental footprints,” Ms. Strunk said. “It’s always a lens through which we look at decisions we’re making.”
Burger King is collecting old plastic toys at its British locations. Next month, the toys will be melted so the plastic can be reused.Credit…Chelsie Craig for The New York Times
But environmental experts say it’s not clear whether eliminating plastic toys would meaningfully advance plastic reduction efforts in the fast-food industry, let alone make a dent in the broader pollution problem.
Burger King has said ending distribution of the toys in Britain would reduce its annual plastic footprint by more than 300 tons. But the context for that number is unclear: Burger King has not calculated the total amount of plastic it uses across its global markets, according to its chief marketing officer, Fernando Machado. And at some restaurants in the United States, Burger King continues to serve drinks in foam cups, even as McDonald’s and other chains have banned the environmentally harmful products.
McDonald’s officials said the company was still working out an effective way to calculate its overall plastic footprint and declined to reveal the volume of plastic toys it distributes each year.
“If you’re a company like Burger King whose packaging is seen as a big part of the problem, it doesn’t make sense to act on the toys but not on your packaging,” said Conrad MacKerron, who helps run As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group that has pushed major fast-food companies to cut down on plastic. “The company seems to be trying to impose a certain priority on this which I don’t think is necessarily merited.”
Mr. Machado said Burger King planned to eliminate foam cups soon. And in the coming months, he said, the company will publish a website detailing the steps it has taken to reduce pollution.
“We’re not sitting here on any level saying that we are perfect,” said Mr. Murdoch, Burger King’s chief in the United Kingdom. “We’re on a journey, and we’ve got a long way to go, but we’re pretty keen on it.”
For years, McDonald’s and Burger King have resisted attempts to regulate the distribution of plastic toys, which began proliferating in the 1980s. The toys have proved to be powerful marketing devices. A study by researchers at Dartmouth found that knowledge of fast-food toys among young children “was associated with greater frequency of eating at McDonald’s.”
“It’s been a pretty important part of the business model of the companies that use them,” said Joel Bakan, the author of “Childhood Under Siege,” a 2011 book about marketing efforts aimed at children. “Both the packaging of the Happy Meal and the addition of the toy to it was highly effective in reaching children.”
In 2010, legislators in San Francisco voted to bar fast-food restaurants from giving away toys with children’s meals that fell short of nutritional standards, arguing that the figurines promoted unhealthy eating. But McDonald’s got around the ban on giveaways by charging 10 cents for each toy.
Now, rising environmental concerns over plastic waste appear to be succeeding where the obesity argument failed. And fast-food chains have grown increasingly focused on digital marketing tools, such as giving children scannable codes that can unlock games on branded apps, making plastic figurines less crucial to attracting younger customers.
“Maybe this is not the key for them anymore,” said Sara Ribakove, a policy official at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has campaigned against fast-food toys. “There’s a strong shift in the digital environment and the way we’re seeing marketing. It’s become much more personalized. It’s coming to everyone’s doorstep in a different way.”
Over the next few years, Burger King will gradually replace plastic toys with digital alternatives, company executives said, though the chain could also develop toys made from biodegradable materials.
A handful of other fast-food chains have scrapped the toys for commercial rather than environmental reasons. In 2013, Taco Bell announced that children’s meals would not be a part of its “long-term brand strategy.” Jack in the Box stopped giving away toys in 2011, saying, “We focus on adults and not children.”
But the major rival of McDonald’s and Burger King, Wendy’s, continues to offer the plastic figurines. Recently, the chain rolled out a line of Transformers toys. A Wendy’s spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
McDonald’s has experimented with toy alternatives in a number of markets, including Germany and France as well as Britain. In Japan, McDonald’s allows customers to return toys so the company can convert them into trays, a project similar to Burger King’s initiative in Britain. In the coming years, McDonald’s officials said, the company expects to distribute fewer plastics toys, as books and other alternatives become more popular.
“It’s all about choice,” said Kandice McLeod, a McDonald’s official who oversees Happy Meal toys. “Our customers want to know that they have a choice in what they’re going to receive.”
In the United States, however, one crucial constituency appears to remain broadly supportive of plastic toys: children.
On a recent Sunday night at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn, 8-year-old Amber Smith sat quietly, playing with the miniature Pokeball that had come with her Happy Meal. As far back as she can remember, she said, fast-food toys have been her favorite part of McDonald’s.
“All the toys, in my opinion, are super awesome,” she said. “I’m not picky with the toys.”
Asked about the prospect of a toyless Happy Meal, Amber balled her hands into fists. “I like the food, too,” she said. But without the toys, “I’d make a tantrum.”
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