UK Fast Food Kids Meals Are Ditching Plastic Toys—Could the United States Be Next?

Mike Pomranz

Is a plastic toy really necessary to make a fast food kids' meal "happy?" As more companies look to reduce their plastic waste—be it straws or utensils or six-pack rings or water bottles—in the United Kingdom, two major fast food brands have turned their attention to their toys. This week, Burger King UK stopped including plastic toys in their kids' meals entirely. And in response, McDonald's UK said that they will give customers the option to swap the toy in their Happy Meals for fruit starting next month, followed by the option to swap any toy for a book next year.

A small plastic toy may seem trivial, but Burger King believes its new policy will save about 350 tons of plastic per year. And though plastic may be out, BK says kids will still get something fun: For now, it's just stickers and a crown, but a BK UK spokesperson says "work is also underway to create an alternative sustainable toy solution for kids' meals that will be launched in the UK in early 2020." Meanwhile, McDonald's sells around 1.2 billion Happy Meals globally every year, according to the Independent, so it's easy to imagine the kind of impact they could make with a policy change.

Speaking of which, somewhere around a fifth of those Happy Meals are sold in the States, so has McDonald's considered bringing this new plastic-reducing option across the pond? "We have an active global working group exploring the production of more sustainable Happy Meal toys, and our markets are testing different Happy Meal models and toy options," a spokesperson for McDonald's in the U.S. told me via email. "A benefit of our global business is the ability to use our scale to innovate and for markets to test, share and learn from each other to enhance our customer experience and ensure changes are customer led. McDonald's continues to work with suppliers to meet our overall Scale for Good packaging and recycling goals."

As for Burger King USA, they offered a similar sentiment. "We are a global brand, and the UK market will be leading the way in making this first step towards change, which is part of our wider commitment on reducing plastics," the company said in an emailed statement. "When it comes to other markets, work is currently underway to look at how we can move away completely from non-biodegradable plastic toys by end 2025."

So though neither statement is definitive cut and dry (as is often the case), the writing appears to be on the wall: Unnecessary plastics are under siege, and kids' meals toys seem like—at the very least—an area where improvements or alternative options can be provided. So don't be surprised if similar initiatives end up here in the near future—or, at the very least, by 2025.