“Don’t play with your food” is something we often hear as kids. But fast-food companies don’t really follow that old adage, it seems. On the contrary, receiving toys when ordering fast food has become a common practice. Big food companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC have been using it for years to attract consumers.
This marketing tactic has worked very well and its ethical implications haven’t been analyzed in great detail — but now, the practice is coming under fire. When KFC introduced toys to its headquarters in China, it was greeted with boycotts by the China Consumers Association (CCA), which claimed that KFC was causing food waste.
The fast-food restaurant chain collaborated with toy maker Pop Mart and launched a collection of seven figurines that customers could receive when purchasing a family blind box. The initiative caused a frenzy among customers who started excessively buying meals in order to collect the toys. As the menus were intended for families, customers could not eat the products on their own and ended up throwing them away. Chinese authorities said that the company “used limited-edition blind box sales to induce and condone consumers’ irrational and excessive purchase of meal sets”. In other words, China says that these toys fuel food waste. In 2020, the Chinese government launched a major campaign against food waste, a campaign that also targeted toys.
Toys from fast food menus have increasingly come under fire in several countries. The main reasoning is simply: toys are encouraging kids to buy more (unhealthy) food than they need. After a campaign in the UK gathered over 500,000 signatures four years ago, Burger King and McDonald’s decided to drop the toys from the menus in the UK. The campaign urged the companies to “think of the environment and stop giving plastic toys with their kids’ meals”.
San Francisco has also passed a law demanding that children’s meals must meet certain nutritional standards before they can be sold with toys, to reduce childhood obesity. McDonald’s circumvented the ban by charging 10 cents for the toys.
But while these may seem like isolated attempts, they did have an effect. Largely due to pressure from clients, fast-food giant McDonald’s said Tuesday it would phase out plastic toys from its signature Happy Meals by 2025.
“Starting now, and phased in across the globe by the end of 2025, our ambition is that every toy sold in a Happy Meal will be sustainable, made from more renewable, recycled, or certified materials like bio-based and plant-derived materials and certified fiber,” the company said in a statement.
Fighting food waste
Food waste is a big problem for virtually all the countries in the world, and the problem has only been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, about one-third of the food that is produced (or 1.3 billion tons per year) is wasted. Food waste happens at all levels, from the farm to the supermarket and restaurants. Of course, we consumers also have our fair share of the blame. The data show that China wastes the most food, followed by India and the United States; at the opposite end of the spectrum are Jamaica, Denmark, and Singapore.
The most often-discarded items are raw products (like meat or fish), expired food, and leftovers. But the waste doesn’t stop here: restaurants and supermarkets routinely discard fresh fruits and vegetables that are not the right size or color and products that are closer to the expiration date. Around 15% of all food is wasted before leaving the farm, and consumers also waste around 17% of the food that reaches them. The disposal process adversely affects the environment. Food waste usually ends up in a landfill, where it rots and releases methane gas.
The other method of disposal is by incinerating the products at 850-1100 °C, which requires the use of a huge amount of energy. In the process, the air is polluted with steam and a lot of water is wasted.
Every problem has a solution and this is also the case here. Researchers have proposed using food waste as biofertilizers, biofuels, chemicals, soil amendment, or animal food. These types of fertilizers have many nutrients and they may replace mineral fertilizers in a few years. Besides this, food waste can be used to repair contaminated soils.
The conversion process can be done in many different ways, such as composting, anaerobic digestion, dehydration, biochar production, and chemical hydrol. China’s favorite is anaerobic digestion, and this process is often used in Europe as well, in countries like the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and France. Anaerobic digestion involves the decomposition of organic substances into smaller molecules using anaerobic bacteria. As a result of this procedure, methane (a greenhouse gas), water, and carbon dioxide (another greenhouse gas) are released.
Another purpose of decomposing food waste is the ability to generate energy. Between 2005-2019, coal was the main source of energy in China, being used about 70% of the time. This prompted the country to seek another source of energy, preferably a natural and renewable one. Food waste could help with this, given that the anaerobic digestion process generates methane, a gas that can be used to make energy.
Tactics should be implemented to stop food waste, and even we, as consumers, can help. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggested some tips to help us reduce food waste. For a start, we should only buy the products we need and store them carefully. Next, don’t shy away from buying “ugly” fruits and vegetables and freeze the leftovers to eat them later. Last but not least: share. If you don’t want to eat anymore, share your portion with a friend or donate the products to a local food bank.
The strategy that restaurants use 75% of the time to tackle this issue is to give the leftovers to employees, instead of throwing them away. Others choose to donate the food to charities. Many of them also started to introduce a system that calculates the amount of food waste.
Criticisms of fast food toys also focus on the negative influence they have on the health of minors. Research conducted at Edith Cowan University found that these products contribute significantly to the increase in childhood obesity. Kids end up consuming large quantities of unhealthy food, because they want the premium toys that come with the meals.
A case study involving 21 mothers shows that parents accuse fast food companies of trying to establish a strong connection with their children, so they can attract them to their businesses. However, no matter how much we like to blame these restaurants, parents are not without guilt. They are the ones who choose to go to these places with their kids and purchase unhealthy products.
The popularity of fast food toys has made McDonald’s the largest toy retailer in the world, selling more than Toys “R” Us. The reason for this could be the cheaper price of the dolls from the menu. Fast food restaurants sell toys at an advantageous price, because the actual cost is the food and the health of the customers.
Fast food toys seem harmless, but they reveal the dark reality of the food industry: childhood obesity and food waste. The toys make people buy more than they can eat, so they end up throwing away food or gaining weight. Eliminating toys can only address a small part of the problem — but it’s still worth trying.