Sunday 13 September 2020

Nerd Church - I'm Not (Totally) Lovin' It: Why I'm Not Entirely Happy (Meal) That They're Ditching The Plastic Toys


Recently, I saw that McDonalds are gonna stop supplying hard plastic toys in their kids' meals in the UK and Ireland.

This was due to a petition from two smol eco-warriors, who were annoyed at the lack of recyclable-ness. 

And good on them. We all need to be working on cutting down on the amount of plastic we use.

Yellow writing on red background: I'm Not (Totally) Lovin' It. Why I'm Not Entirely Happy (Meal) That They're Ditching the Plastic Toys

But when I heard the news, I wasn't entirely happy. 

Of course, I was happy that there'd be less plastic thrown away and ending up in landfill or the water system!

...But I still had some reservations.

Because I knew how much it would hurt a lot of kids whose families are on low incomes. 

Yes, you read that right. Those of you who know will know - those of you who don't? I'll explain.

But first, let’s lay some ground-rules. This post is not:

- a criticism of the intentions of this campaign

- an invitation to be mean to smol children trying to make the world a better place

- an attempt to make large corporations look like angels

- making excuses for McDonalds

- making excuses for plastic pollution and/or the mass production of single-use plastic 

- suggesting we shouldn't be cutting down on plastic consumption

This post is:

- saying we need to think through the consequences of our actions

- highlighting that those with enough don't think about the material effect on those who have less

- suggesting that people need to be more aware of the deprivations in our societies

- encouraging EVERYONE to cut down on plastics, and look out for our environment.

Also, I’m gonna refer to McDonalds and Happy Meals here, but please assume that most of it applies to pretty much any fast-food place which gives out plastic toys. Ok? Ok.

As I’ve mentioned before, my country, Wales, is relatively poor.

I’ve always been fairly comfortable, because my parents and grandparents worked hard and made a lot of sacrifices – but I’ve never been ‘well-off’ either. 

And the area that I grew up in, going to state school, had far more poor kids than rich ones.

I can think of lots of kids whose families were struggling to put food on the table.

So, sitting there between the small handful of well-off kids, and the many underprivileged kids, I stayed pretty down-to-earth (imho.) 

And I’m aware that some kids? Their only toys came from McDonalds.

Some kids might have some toys that didn’t come from McDonalds, ofc, but Happy Meal toys can and did help to pad-out even the smallest toy-box.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think that fast-food chains came up with the whole give-you-a-toy thing in order to make children from low-income households happy, and encourage their social and neurological development.

The toys are, and always have been, a gimmick to get you to buy their food. Sometimes it doubles up as promo for a film or a type of toy or whatever.

But whichever way you slice it, if it didn’t keep that till ringing, it would’ve been ditched a long time ago.

In this instance, though, we had an unintended consequence of allowing kids from poorer backgrounds to get what were often brand-name toys.

These were kids whose parents could never have afforded Barbie, TY, Matchbox, My Little Pony, Disney, etc. 

Barbie (in Toy Story 3): Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!
...beginning to see why our generation is socially conscious.
Plus, y'know, as the Internet has pointed out, they didn't make her president for nothing!

Via Giphy

...But they could maybe afford a Happy Meal, as a treat.

Two birds with one stone, after all – the kid gets a hot meal and a toy that you couldn’t otherwise afford to give them.
And the brands meant that the kids would have the same social clout – or more – in the playground as their better-off classmates.

I can remember, as a tiny child, being jealous as hell of a kid with a backpack full of My Little Pony toys.

I didn’t know she was from a struggling family. 

I didn’t know she had those toys because they came free with a meal – and because her relatives were ordering Happy Meals instead of their usual McD’s order, so that they could get her the toys.

I just thought it was so cool that her Bampi* got her all those toys! And it meant that the social disparities between us remained invisible for just that little bit longer.


Which brings us to plastic.

Plastic is a problem. No doubt.

Hooman beans have created a substance for single-use which is not, in fact, a temporary substance. Plastic stays around for ever and does not biodegrade. 

Lizzy Caplan (Mean Girls): You're plastic. Cold, shiny, hard, plastic.
Via Giphy

What it is does do is break down to such small parts that it enters the food-chain, and the bloodstream of animals and possibly humans.

That’s aside from all the other issues with plastic, such as clogging reefs and injuring animals. Yup, it’s not great stuff.

So cutting down on plastic – especially single-use, throw-away, plastic – is a good thing.

The problem is that people would rather be a greater inconvenience to people with less societal privilege, such as disabled people for whom plastic straws are often the best way to stay hydrated, rather than people with larger societal power, e.g. synthetic fishing nets from industrial fishing, or nurdles from industrial plastic production.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t cut down on plastic straws when and where we can dearest nerdlets! 

(...trying to convey nuance on the internet while thinking of all the ways this could be taken the wrong way is so much fun!)

But it’s interesting when the steps that get taken affect marginalised people, rather than corporations. #JustSaying.

And so we come to the McDonald’s toys...

I am pleased to read that there will be soft toys available as well as paper toys (which will last until the car ride home, most likely,) and books (never a bad thing.) - which is awesome, and will hopefully mitigate some of the social problems here.

It certainly lessens those reservations I had when I first heard they were cutting out the toys.

The kids who pushed for the toys to be removed were, with all due respect, children from a fairly comfortable background. 

Children who are clearly unfamiliar with the concept that some kids in the UK in 2020 do not have m/any toys.

And I don’t blame them for that – I wish all kids could grow up blissfully unaware of deprivation. 

But no-one’s sat them down, and explained to them that for some kids, this is the only toy they’re gonna get.

No adult has taken the responsibility of letting them know that, actually, there are people less off than them and sometimes an unintended consequence of our actions is that we hurt those who are already at a disadvantage.

They simply haven’t had to think that way – the way that made me say, on learning that our library was staying closed over last Christmas’ school holidays*: but what about the kids?

Because there were always kids at the library over the holidays – and they weren’t the bookish kids, either.

The kids who were a permanent installation at the library, whether holiday-time or after school, were the ones whose parents worked, and couldn’t afford childcare. 

Or else they were the kids for whom home wasn’t always a safe place.

But the library was warm, safe, and had adult supervision.

An unintended consequence that government funding never takes account of.

*I realise that 2020 has closed everything like libraries etc. But I think we can all agree that 2020 is a special circumstance.

We can all
(hopefully) agree that eco activism is, on the whole, a positive thing – and one that we all need to take an interest in.

We all need to take care of our planet – and to say that we’re in the middle of an environmental crisis is an understatement.

But I can't help thinking that sometimes we need to think things through, so that we aren't taking things from those who can least afford to lose them.

The TL;DR:

  • Plastic pollution sucks

  • We need to reduce our plastic consumption

  • We need to think through our actions to reduce plastic waste, in order to avoid harming others in the process

  • If you're well-off, please teach your kids that they have it better than a lot of people

  • Society needs to take better care of poorer kids

What do you think?
Do you think we need to teach kids more about social consequences?
Or should reducing plastics be the goal, no matter the social costs?
Talk to me! 💖💬

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  1. Great post, Cee! I think you have provided a really great discussion here.

    I would consider myself an eco activist. I try to reduce plastic consumption when I can and I vote for politicians who have good environment policies. Admittedly, and I am not proud of this, when the whole banning plastic straws became a thing, I got super happy, thinking that this was the only way to save the turtles. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would disagree with it.

    I think my POV was a lot like the kids pushing to get rid of the plastic toys. I was from a privileged position, not knowing that there are disabled people who would not benefit from paper straws, or no straws at all. I saw how my grandfather at restaurants would get frustrated with there not being straws because his hands are obviously weaker and he didn’t want to spill on himself. It was then that I realized that banning plastic straws when there are still large corporations that are going to dump plastic into the oceans anyways, is not worth it when it alienates people who need them.

    I do think it is important for us to make conscious decisions for ourselves on how to reduce plastic consumption. But as our decisions will be tailored for our personal needs, we cannot enforce a one size fits all solution onto everyone. I do think that the children who pushed for this should be educated on privilege. I love how they are trying to make a change for the world, but it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t harm other children.

    I do like the idea of McDonalds giving away books. Yay for literacy! But sometimes a book can not replace a toy that will bring a child joy. I think there needs to be a better balance.

    1. Thanks Em!

      That's the thing - we don't know what we don't know. Some days, my nan can't drink at all without a straw - and the paper straws disintegrate in hot drinks (hot drinks also help us keep her core body temperature up, because she gets hypothermic.) I think that making things available for those who need them, while pushing the paper straws and stocking more paper straws, is much better. My local coffee shop also gives a price reduction if you bring your own re-usable cup, which is an awesome step.

      Like I said, my point here is not that we need to stop getting rid of plastic - we *need* to cut down on plastics - especially non-recyclable plastics.

      I just think we need to think things through - a lack of forethought is what got us into this mess, after all.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more, Cee Arr. It's a complicated subject for sure, but I really don't like how marginalized people can be pushed to the side with initiatives like these. There has to be nuance and an understanding that not everyone is able to do the more eco-friendly option (whatever that option may be).

    1. Nuance is unfortunately not something modern society (or possibly hooman beans in general) is much good at!

  3. You always make me think of things I wouldn't have thought about. I hadn't heard about this situation but I understand what you mean about the toys being so useful to low income families. Hopefully they will replace them with something more environmentally friendly?

    1. Their current plan is to introduce soft toys, paper toys, and books - so hopefully all will work out for the best!

  4. I would never have thought of this, but you are so very right! There are many children who benefit from Happy Meal Toys and may not have the means to get other types of toys. And, honestly, I feel like toys are one type of plastic that is less "disposable"---I mean, I do know that many kids end up not holding onto their Happy Meal Toys for all that long, but it's not like plastic packaging that's literally meant to be thrown away. I do still understand the underlying impulse, though, and of course we want to take care of our world in as many ways as we can. But I agree that this time the disadvantages to poor kids might outweigh the benefits to the environment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Cee!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    1. Thanks! It's honestly fairly strange to me that this is news to a lot of people. But it very much proves that people don't know what they don't know, I guess. I know that a lot of kids who already had that particular happy meal toy would give it to their sibling or cousin, or to a friend.

      I can remember buying happy meal toys second-hand at charity stalls, too. And like I said it was brand-name stuff - My Little Pony etc. And even though my parents were, like I said, comfortable, my My Little Pony toys were almost universally second-hand - some of them had belonged to my older cousin, some I picked up at charity things etc. So I never really considered them 'disposable.'

      I do know that a lot of Happy Meal toys *did* end up in landfill (somehow... I honestly don't know of anyone who would've thrown them out unless they were broken...) but... I think maybe we need to teach kids about value, and disposing of things responsibly, as opposed to just saying 'no one should have this thing.'

      Still, hopefully the alternatives they've come up with will work well!


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