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Burger King Wants to Heal the Planet It Helped Destroy by Eliminating Plastic Toys

The plastic will be melted down and turned into playground materials; meanwhile, fast-food chains continue to ignore real ways to fight climate change

An orange, yellow, and purple Burger King kids meal box reading “Melting down plastic toys for good” behind a meal of chicken nuggets, fries, and a bottle of juice. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

The next ploy in fast-food chains’ efforts to seem environmentally-friendly is here, as Burger King UK has announced plans to stop giving away plastic toys in kids’ meals.

Per the New York Times, the chain is planning to gather up as many of those trinkets as it can (they have donation boxes for old toys, too), and melt them down for reuse — they’ll be turned into playground equipment and tray tables — by the end of the year. Competitor McDonald’s may well take a similar route, too. While it hasn’t promised a mass extinction of Happy Meal toys yet, McD’s has scaled back distribution of plastic figurines in some markets, including the UK, where it offers fruit in place of a toy. How... tempting?

But eliminating plastic toys is a token gesture that doesn’t get anywhere near the heart of the environmental problems caused by mass-produced fast food. According to what Burger King told the Times, the elimination of plastic toys in the United Kingdom will “reduce its annual plastic footprint by more than 300 tons” — a large-seeming number, but one that doesn’t put a meaningful dent in the damage that fast-food chains contribute to climate change through the supply chain.

Beef production contributes massively to carbon emissions (chicken, pork, and dairy aren’t a whole lot better). The BBC reports that “agricultural emissions including those from meat and dairy are on track to contribute around 70 percent of the total allowable greenhouse gas emissions by 2050” and that livestock industry could eventually use 10 percent of the world’s water flows. While all agriculture has some kind of carbon footprint, beef (and lamb, though that’s not really a fast-food staple) has hugely disproportionate emissions on a per-ton basis. It’s not that beef production needs to be stopped, but it will need to drop to a maximum of around 1.5 burgers per person, per week (less than Burger King or McDonald’s wants you to eat) to remain sustainable.

To its credit, McDonald’s does at least have a semi-ambitious plan to reduce its emissions, although it has received mixed reviews for it — for example, it aims to lower emissions in its supply chain by finding ways to encourage more sustainable beef farming. But even more sustainable beef production is still abnormally intense — a start, but not the end goal. McDonald’s hasn’t even bothered to put a so-called “fake meat” burger on its menu, with the exception of a very limited trial in Canada. On the flip side, Burger King has such a burger, but no emissions plan.

Similar to the move to replace plastic straws with paper alternatives (in some cases, non-recyclable paper straws), getting rid of plastic toys, while certainly a step, is not a particularly significant one — especially in the face of broad-tentacled fossil fuel companies causing far greater problems.

The idea to eliminate them came not from environmental experts, but from a petition created by two 8-year-old girls doing what they can to save the planet and their futures. It’s a genuinely inspiring story: Children stand up to Big Corporation and get results. However, the real change needed is in the hands of the fast-food industry alone.