BBC War on Plastic: How Happy Meal toys and pellet production are piling on to the waste mountain

The final instalment of the BBC's War On Plastic tonight (24 June) will highlight just how broken the linear economy is, as Anita focuses on the mountain of free plastic toys from places such as fast food restaurants, while Hugh learns how the plastic industry plans to increase production by 50%

BBC War on Plastic: How Happy Meal toys and pellet production are piling on to the waste mountain

Toys from McDonald's will be in the spotlight this episode. Image: DocChewbacca

When Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall places the spotlight on a sector and issue, the public tends to take notice. The eye-opening War On Waste series concludes tonight (24 June) with Hugh and Anita Rani both outlining how minuscule, everyday objects are in fact acting as the scree in this global mountain of waste.

The episodes to date have placed the crosshairs on retailers and cosmetic manufacturers. During the first episode, Fearnley-Whittingstall and Rani shed fresh light on the UK’s plastics waste problem – placing the so-called “Big Seven” supermarkets under increased scrutiny over their approach to packaging.

The second episode focused on single-use plastics in the bathroom, covering the stark environmental impacts of the packaging used for (and in) our toiletries and cosmetics. In their survey of 22 homes on an “average British street” in Redcar, the duo found that, of the 15,774 pieces of single-use plastic packaging amassed between the residents, around one-third (5,241) were bathroom items.

Not-so-Happy Meal

The final episode focuses on the mountain of discarded promotional plastic toys, many of which are freebies from fast food restaurants and magazines. The episode sees two young girls outlining why their petition to get fast good giants such as Burger King and McDonald’s to rethink the environmental impacts of their giveaway toys.

Nine-year-old Ella McEwan and her sister Caitlin, seven, have an online petition that is raising a lot of interest. “It made us very sad to see how plastic harms wildlife and pollutes the ocean, and we want to change this,” the petition reads, which has had more than 167,000 signatures at the time of writing.

The McDonald’s website notes that Happy Meal toys can be recycled, as can any battery-assisted toys.

“The ‘crossed out’ wheeled bin symbol on either the Happy Meal toy or the toy packaging indicates that this is an electronic toy and means that this toy can be recycled rather than disposed of as waste. Battery powered toys will need to go into a designated ‘WEEe’ bin for waste electronic and electrical equipment,” the company states.

This isn’t the first time the plastics toys have been subject to environmental scrutiny. In 2018, Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey called for them to be banned, but McDonald’s reiterated the toys ensured “more fun-filled hours at home too”.

McFlurry of activity

McDonald’s has been a quick mover in the area of plastics. Last week, McDonald’s UK & Ireland announced plans to remove the single-use plastic lids from its McFlurry items and switch to cardboard containers for its salad. No UK stores will offer plastic lids with their McFlurry ice creams by September – a move which will reduce its annual plastic waste footprint by 383 metric tonnes.

As for salads, McDonald’s UK & Ireland will replace the existing plastic bowls, cups and lids used across its entire range of salad-based mains and sides with recyclable cardboard containers from next week. The new packaging will be made from ‘carton board – a material that contains 50% recycled and 50% virgin content, all of which is from sources certified as renewable.

The changes come as McDonald’s UK is striving to source all packaging from renewable or recycled sources by 2025. It has already removed virgin plastic straws from all stores, replacing them with paper alternatives, and introduced multi-compartment bins to help encourage customers to recycle correctly.

Industry plans

As for Hugh, he visits Scotland to meet big players in the plastics industry. According to show previews, the conversation focuses on industry plans to increase plastic production by 50% before 2040.

Fearnley-Whittingstall will visit the INEOS factory in Grangemouth, where 60-70 billion plastic pellets are produced every day.

While this targeted growth is alarming, it should be noted that the plastics value chain is attempting to improve the circularity of its products.

Six European organisations have committed, in cooperation with the European Commission, to launch Circularity Platforms aiming to reach 50% plastics waste recycling by 2040 – essentially offsetting any growth.

Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE), Petcore Europe, the European Carpet and Rug Association (ECRA), the Polyolefin Circularity Platform (PCEP Europe), European Plastics Converters (EuPC) and VinylPlus have adopted a jointly adopted a voluntary framework to expand plastic recycling activities.

The aim of the Circularity Platforms is to get the fragmented industry – which is made up of more than 60,000 companies (mainly SMEs) – to reach 50% recycling and reuse of plastics waste and 70% recycling and reuse for plastics packaging.

The commitments were made during a booming period for the industry. Over a 10-year period up to 2016, global plastic output has increased from 245 million tonnes to 348 million tonnes. According to the PlasticsEurope trade association, production increased by almost 4% in 2017. By 2020, it is expected that the global plastics industry will be worth in excess of $650bn.

In the UK, ‘the UK Plastics Industry: A Strategic Vision For Growth’ sets out how more than 40 organisations plan to grow their outputs in the future. Collaborated through the British Plastics Foundation, the report does note the importance of working with organisations like WRAP to enhance the sustainability and circularity of production, but lacks any tangible targets.

As is often the case with these types of shows, the public backlash could likely steer companies towards new commitments and with McDonald’s impressive targets on plastic to date, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them begin to move away from traditional plastic toys.

Matt Mace

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