Environmental campaigners claim that plastic giveaways are catastrophic – but will the fast-food chain’s move make any difference?

Plastic is regarded as the excellent product of the last century: enduring, pliable, versatile and inexpensive to produce. It is also convenient for kids, to whom it can be used to sell anything from junk food to extravagantly priced magazines; a few sheets of newsprint with a little water pistol.

Red beetle toy car Playmobil
Photo by Steinar Engeland / Unsplash

However, if parents suppose they are costly, so may children in the foreseeable future. “These toys are nothing but future landfill; the legacy our children will inherit,” says Sian Sutherland, the co-founder of A Plastic Planet, a group campaigning against pollution. “Fast-fix plastic toys are used for moments and exist for centuries.”

Eventually, Burger King is taking a stand against the plastic scourge by putting an end to giving away small plastic toys. McDonald’s has objected, while others in the retail, fast-food as well as children’s magazine industries are so far sitting on their hands.

The toys are not just hampering bins, landfills, and oceans but recycling machines, too. Joe Allen, the chief commercial officer at First Mile recycling company, claims: “Many aren’t recyclable at all, and will contaminate the mixed recycled collections that many households are offered by the council,” he says. “Even the toys that are made from easily recyclable plastic are usually too small or have components that are too small, to be picked up by conventional recycling-sorting machinery. Their size also causes potential problems with the machinery itself because of blockages.

Julian Kirby, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth, gives some rules which are necessary to stem the plastic tide: “Companies [that give away the toys] must adopt a new business model that prioritizes the safeguarding of the Earth’s limited resources for future generations – and if they won’t, the government should make them.

However, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has no idea how to ban or cut down the toys under incoming rules that will typically get rid of straws, stirrers, cotton buds, and other single-use plastics because technically the toys are set up for reuse. Allen disagrees: “These toys are usually made so cheaply that they don’t last long enough for reuse, and become single-use items – not the habits or attitudes we should be promoting to our children.”

Lego blocks
Photo by Iker Urteaga / Unsplash

Many companies other than Burger King are willing to increase and take the imaginative leap requisite to find ways to entice children innately to any type of novelty. They will need to soon, says Solitaire Townsend of the Futerra consultancy.

Kids themselves are becoming aware of it,” she says, having operated lots of focus groups that suppose recycling was the environmental problem that grabbed children almost instantly. “Children like recycling and they are aware of waste. You’re not selling plastic, you’re selling fun, play and an experience – why does that have to be plastic? There’s a massive advantage for the company that works out how to sell that experience in a better way than badly molded plastic. Give away books instead.