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What if McDonald’s ditched all plastic in Happy Meals?

Diane Davis

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As the mother of a 5-year-old, my house is littered with cheap plastic McDonald’s Happy Meal toys that will soon end up in the trash. The story hasn’t changed much since my own childhood three decades ago. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

A designer in Malaysia has reimagined and prototyped a Happy Meal so it’s made entirely from eco-friendly materials, including the toy, which is made from wood. And far from being dull and boring, this Happy Meal is full of beautiful illustrations and fun, interactive components. The project begs the question: Why isn’t McDonald’s transitioning to a planet-positive Happy Meal like this one?

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

McDonald’s says it’s making efforts to make its Happy Meals greener. In September, it announced that it would reduce fossil fuel-based plastic in its Happy Meal toys by 90% by 2025 (compared to a 2018 baseline). However, it will continue to make these toys out of either recycled plastic or plastic sourced from renewable materials like corn–neither of which is biodegradable. So when these toys are inevitably tossed in the trash, they still end up in the landfill or ocean, where they don’t decompose, but break down into smaller and smaller fragments. These micro-plastics end up in the food chain, poisoning animals and humans. This is an enormous environmental problem when you consider that McDonald’s sells more than a billion toys a year worldwide.

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

Regina Lim, a designer in Malaysia, decided not to wait for McDonald’s. As she was designing her box, she was inspired by the forests of East Malaysia where she grew up. The box, along with the packaging for McNuggets, fries, and drinks, all feature delightful, colorful images of flora and fauna. While this is just a prototype, Lim says ideally McDonald’s would manufacture the paper products from recycled paper, perhaps even embedded with wildflower seeds.

The toy inside is a trio of wooden trees; there are also cardboard cutouts of a giraffe, elephant, and zebra, which the child can assemble into 3D animals. As a final flourish, the box itself unfolds to reveal a story about how seeds grow into trees. “My parents took me out into nature as a child, and I thought it was important to teach the next generation to appreciate these spaces, which are dying off,” she tells me. “But I think it’s possible to teach kids about sustainability in a fun way.” Going forward, Lim imagines McDonald’s creating boxes that highlight the company’s different sustainability efforts, like sourcing beef and supporting young activists.

McDonald’s didn’t comment specifically on Lim’s design. But when we reached out, the company said it was rethinking many aspects of the toy’s design, including how to create more durable toys that kids will want to play with for a long time. When it comes to the materials in these toys, the company said that waste and recycling infrastructure varies significantly in each market. McDonald’s said it’s exploring how to create Happy Meal toys out of materials that can be recovered in these systems, such as reducing the number of materials in each toy.

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

For now, the company said it is committed to using plastics from renewable and recycled sources partly to create demand for these plastics. (It’s worth noting that some environmental experts say that recycled plastic is problematic because it also creates demand for virgin plastic, effectively supporting the fossil fuel industry.)

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

Lim says she was inspired to take on this project because she’s observed how big chains like McDonalds have been under fire from consumers for their poor track record on the environment. “Fast food chains have been criticized when it comes to sustainability, and the problem is only getting worse,” she says. “At the same time, if big companies like McDonalds can make small changes, it can make a big difference because of the impact and influence they have.”

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

As she designed this box, she paid attention to some of these small tweaks that would be easy for McDonald’s to make. For instance, the iconic Happy Meal box has a clear design flaw: It doesn’t fit a small soda, one of the drink options. As a result, the drink is often packaged in a separate bag or drink holder. So Lim redesigned the box to ensure you don’t need any extraneous packaging, while keeping the aesthetics of the box instantly recognizable.

[Photo: courtesy Regina Lim]

Lim recognizes that even if McDonald’s manufactured wooden toys at scale, it’s unlikely they would be as cheap as plastic, which is one of the cheaper materials on the market. (That said, in France, McDonald’s eliminated plastic toys from Happy Meals earlier this year, in favor of paper-based toys like trading cards and coloring books; McDonald’s doesn’t have plans to roll out a similar program in the U.S.)

Still, from a business perspective, Lim argues that a small cost increase might be worthwhile for McDonald’s. “It makes sense for McDonald’s to pour some of its profits into making its Happy Meal much more sustainably,” she says. “It would also help McDonald’s counter all of the criticism it is facing and build its brand image.”


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The Download: tracking animals, and biotech plants

Diane Davis

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dossier of journalist information concept

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

How tracking animal movement may save the planet

Animals have long been able to offer unique insights about the natural world around us, acting as organic sensors picking up phenomena invisible to humans. Canaries warned of looming catastrophe in coal mines until the 1980s, for example.

These days, we have more insight into animal behavior than ever before thanks to technologies like sensor tags. But the data we gather from these animals still adds up to only a relatively narrow slice of the whole picture. Results are often confined to silos, and for many years tags were big and expensive, suitable only for a handful of animal species.

This is beginning to change. Researchers are asking: What will we find if we follow even the smallest animals? What if we could see how different species’ lives intersect? What could we learn from a system of animal movement, continuously monitoring how creatures big and small adapt to the world around us? It may be, some researchers believe, a vital tool in the effort to save our increasingly crisis-plagued planet. Read the full story.

—Matthew Ponsford 

This story is from the upcoming print issue of MIT technology Review, dedicated to exploring hidden worlds. Buy a subscription to get your hands on a copy when it publishes on February 28th! Deals start at just $8 a month.

These are the biotech plants you can buy now

—Antonio Regalado

This spring I am looking forward to growing some biotech in my backyard for the first time. It’s possible because of startups that have started selling genetically engineered plants directly to consumers, including a bright-purple tomato and a petunia that glows in the dark.

This week, for $73, I ordered both by pressing a few buttons online.

Biotech seeds have been a huge business for a while. In fact, by sheer mass, GMOs are probably the single most significant product of genetic engineering ever. But the difference now is that people are able to plant and grow GMO houseplants in their homes. Read the full story. 

Watch this robot as it learns to stitch up wounds

The news: A new AI-trained surgical robot can make stitches on its own. A video taken by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, shows the two-armed robot completing stitches in a row on a simple wound in imitation skin. It managed to make six stitches before a human had to intervene. 

Why it matters: It’s common for surgeons today to get help from robots, but we’re a long way from them being able to fully replace many tasks. This new research marks progress toward robots that can operate more autonomously on very intricate, complicated tasks. Read the full story. 

—James O’Donnell

Three frequently asked questions about EVs, answered

Transportation is a critical part of the climate change puzzle: it accounts for something like a quarter of global emissions. And the vehicles that we use to shuttle around to work, school, and the grocery store in many parts of the world are a huge piece of the problem.

Last week, MIT technology Review hosted an event where we dug into the future of batteries and the materials that go into them. We got so many great questions, and we answered quite a few of them (subscribers should check out the recording of the full event). 

But there were still a lot of questions, particularly about EVs, that we didn’t get to. So let’s take a look at a few of those. 

—Casey Crownhart

This story is from The Spark, our weekly newsletter all about the technology that could combat the climate crisis. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The first US moon landing for over 50 years is due today
If all goes to plan, Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus spacecraft will touch down at 5.30pm ET. (WP $)
Here’s how you can watch it. (NYT $)

2 ChatGPT had a meltdown yesterday
Which is not necessarily worrying in itself… but it isn’t great that we have no idea why. (technology%2F2024%2F02%2Fchatgpt-alarms-users-by-spitting-out-shakespearean-nonsense-and-rambling%2F%3Fmc_cid%3D8d2404be49%26mc_eid%3DUNIQID&data=05%7C02%7C%7C7a9f483188ae4387f99e08dc33a02068%7C961f23f8614c4756bafff1997766a273%7C1%7C0%7C638442010063983878%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C0%7C%7C%7C&sdata=duo%2BDx%2FppidnuHwo4iXqtn7l4NWMB6FN1qSQ4Yt%2Bkhk%3D&reserved=0″ target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Ars Technica)
Gab’s racist chatbots have been trained to deny the Holocaust. (Wired $)
+ Soon, we might be using AI to do all sorts of tasks for us. (NPR)

3 You can buy Vision Pro headsets in Russia 
Two years after Apple quit the country. (NBC)

4 Google is racing to fix a new “overly woke” AI-powered tool 
It was returning women and people of color when asked to produce images of America’s founding fathers, for example. (BBC)
It’s pausing the ability for Gemini AI to generate images until it’s fixed the issue. (The Verge)
These new tools let you see for yourself how biased AI image models are. (MIT technology Review) 
How it feels to be sexually objectified by an AI. (MIT technology Review)

5 American winters are getting warm
They’re also getting shorter, and less predictable. (Insider $)

6 Instagram is a news site, whether it likes it or not
And that means it has a responsibility to do content moderation properly. (NYT $)

7 Inside the weird world of Instacart’s AI-generated recipes
It’s becoming harder and harder to work out what’s been made by a human versus a machine. (404 Media)
Why Big Tech’s watermarking plans are some welcome good news. (MIT technology Review)

8 We need protection from companies building tech to read our minds
It’s not such a concerning issue right now, but it could be sooner than you know. (Vox)
How your brain data could be used against you. (MIT technology Review)

9 Why AM radio lingers on 
A surprisingly diverse group of people still rely on it, even as it heads towards obsolescence. (The Atlantic $)

10 Writing by hand has a positive impact on memory and learning ✍
I knew it! (Scientific American $)

Quote of the day

“Happy listening! ???? Happy listening! ???? Happy listening! ???? Happy listening! ????

—An example of how ChatGPT went off the rails yesterday, screenshotted and shared by a user on X. 

The big story

Inside the app Minnesota police used to collect data on journalists at protests

<a href="https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/03/23/1047899/secret-police-app-minnesota-police-journalists-protests-data/?truid=<<%20Test%20Link%20ID%20>>&utm_source=the_download&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the_download.unpaid.engagement&utm_term=<dossier of journalist information concept

MS TECH

March 2022

Photojournalist J.D. Duggan was covering a protest in Minnesota in April 2021 when police officers surrounded him and others, and told them to get on the ground.

Officers sorted the press from the protesters, walked them to a parking lot, and began photographing them, one by one, with cellphones, which they told Duggan would be stored in an app. 

An investigation by MIT technology Review found the data was collected using a tool called Intrepid Response, an easy way to almost instantly de-anonymize protest attendees and keep tabs on their movements. For some, the tool’s use is a dangerous step in the direction of authoritarianism. Read the full story.

—Sam Richards & Tate Ryan-Mosley

+ Fascinated by the stories in this grisly interactive map, which details murders committed in medieval London, York and Oxford. 
+ Terrible night’s sleep last night? Fear not, it’s possible to salvage your day. (NYT $) 
+ This athletic fluffy cat is bound to bring a smile to your face.
+ Some simple ways to make your diet healthier.


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Here are the biotech plants you can buy right now to grow at home

Diane Davis

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caprese salad in a bowl made with halved yellow, red and purple-fleshed cherry tomatoes

Biotech seeds have been a huge business for a while. In fact, by sheer mass, GMOs are probably the single most significant product of genetic engineering ever. Except most of us aren’t planting rows of cotton or corn that can resist worms or survive a spritz of RoundUp, the big gene-splicing innovations that companies like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred first introduced in the 1990s.

What makes these new plants different is that you can buy them directly from their creators and then plant them in the yard, on a balcony, or just in a pot. 

Purple tomatoes developed by Norfolk Health Produce.

NORFOLK HEALTHY PRODUCE

Purple tomato

Starting off my biotech shopping spree, I first spent $20 to order 10 tomato seeds from Norfolk Health Produce, a small company in Davis, California, that created what it calls the Purple Tomato. The seeds have a gene introduced from a snapdragon flower, which adds a nutrient, anthocyanin, that also gives the fruits their striking color.

According to Channa S. Prakash, a geneticist and dean at Tuskegee University, the tomato is the “the first-of-its kind GMO food crop marketed directly to home gardeners.”   

The CEO of the company, Nathan Pumplin, was packing seeds when I reached him by phone. He claimed that anthocyanin has health benefits—it’s an antioxidant—but he agreed that the color is a useful sales pitch.

“I don’t need to make a label that says this red tomato is better for you than the other red tomato,” says Pumplin. “We can simply put out the purple tomato, and people say, ‘Oh my gosh, this tomato is purple.’ Its beauty is a distinguishing characteristic that people can just immediately see and understand.”

There is a plan to mass-produce the purple tomatoes for sale in supermarkets. But Pumplin says the company couldn’t ignore thousands of requests from regular gardeners. “It’s not the main focus of our business, but we are very interested in having people grow these at home,” he says. And “if home gardeners want to save the seed and replant it in their gardens for their own use, that is okay.”

couple in their glowing garden of gmo petunias
A promotional video for Light Bio’s firefly petunia.

LIGHT BIO

Glowing flower

I next decided to shell out for the “firefly petunia,” so called because the plant is supposed to glow in the dark. It’s sold by Light Bio, a startup backed by the venture capital firm NFX .

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Technology & Innovation

The Download: deep diving, and virtual power plants in China

Diane Davis

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open and closed doors with a ribbon of text running around and through them

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Meet the divers trying to figure out how deep humans can go

Two hundred thirty meters into one of the deepest underwater caves on Earth, Richard “Harry” Harris knew that not far ahead of him was a 15-meter drop leading to a place no human being had seen before. 

Getting there had taken two helicopters, three weeks of test dives, two tons of equipment, and hard work to overcome an unexpected number of technical problems. But in the moment, Harris was hypnotized by what was before him: the vast, black, gaping unknown. 

Staring into it, he felt the familiar pull—maybe he could go just a little farther. Instead, he and his diving partner, Craig Challen, decided to turn back. They weren’t there to exceed 245 meters—a depth they’d reached three years earlier. Nor were they there to set a depth record—that would mean going past 308 meters. 

They were there to test what they saw as a possible key to unlocking depths beyond even 310 meters: breathing hydrogen. Read the full story. 

—Samantha Schuyler

This story is from the next print issue of MIT technology Review, all about exploring hidden worlds. Want to get your hands on a copy when it publishes next Wednesday? Subscribe now.

Why China’s EV ambitions need virtual power plants

Virtual power plants (VPPs) are an idea whose time has arrived. They’re basically a layer on top of resources like electric vehicle chargers, solar panels, and battery packs, which allow you to coordinate energy consumption and supply. This lets utility companies handle times of higher energy demand by adjusting the end use of electricity, for example reducing the efficiency of an EV charger so it takes longer to finish and thus puts less burden on the grid.

In China, which is adopting electric vehicles faster than any other country, VPPs could be transformational. The country has just started testing programs which incentivize EV owners to charge their vehicles late at night, when there’s less demand on the grid. 

It’s also piloting bidirectional charging stations, which would let EV owners not only use electricity, but even sell it back into the grid at times of peak demand, earning them a little extra cash. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter giving you behind-the-scenes insights into China and its tech scene. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are ‘children’
It’s a worrying development, especially for people seeking infertility treatments. (CNN)
The first IVF babies conceived by a robot have been born. (MIT technology Review)

2 Inside AI startup Anthrophic’s funding spree 
Investors cannot hand money over to promising AI companies quickly enough right now, it seems. (NYT $)
OpenAI is now valued at a staggering $86 billion. (Bloomberg $)
Why the New York Times could win against OpenAI. (Ars Technica)

3 The EU is setting up rules for sucking CO2 out of the sky
It’s creating a first-of-its-kind certification framework for carbon removal technologies. (The Verge)
+ How carbon removal technology is like a time machine. (MIT technology Review)

4 Researchers are imbibing AI with human-like qualities
No one is immune from anthropomorphism, it seems. (New Scientist $)
If you’ve posted on Reddit, your words are probably being used to train AI. (technology%2F2024%2F02%2Fyour-reddit-posts-may-train-ai-models-following-new-60-million-agreement%2F%3Fmc_cid%3Deecfd57aad%26mc_eid%3DUNIQID&data=05%7C02%7C%7Cd1b49b76477142945b0508dc32d84365%7C961f23f8614c4756bafff1997766a273%7C1%7C0%7C638441151658419211%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C0%7C%7C%7C&sdata=yEmOuq3VhexDU0vVNasDICewGMS5cbdip0ZnnePNd8Y%3D&reserved=0″ target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Ars Technica)

5 What mind-reading devices can teach us
They’re restoring functions like speech and movement. But they’re also shining a light on how the brain works. (Nature)
Elon Musk claims the first Neuralink patient can now control a computer mouse with their thoughts. (CNBC)

6 Fake funeral livestream scams are proliferating on Facebook
Beyond grim, and Meta’s doing almost nothing to prevent it. (404 Media)

7 A spacecraft is about to try to snag some space junk
If it works, it’ll be an important development for the effort to clear Earth’s orbit of debris. (Ars Technica

8 People are breeding pythons to have ‘emoji’ patterns 
But, as always amid a gold rush, some of them are doing some deeply unethical things in the process. (New Yorker $)

9 How scientists predicted Iceland’s vast volcanic eruption
And saved a lot of lives in the process. (Quanta)
How machine learning might unlock earthquake prediction. (MIT technology Review)

10 Older people are among VR’s most enthusiastic adopters
And studies suggest spending time in virtual reality can produce positive effects, too. (AP)
Virtual reality can be used as a painkiller. (MIT technology Review)

Quote of the day

“People say AI is overhyped, but I think it’s not hyped enough.”

—Puneet Chandok, who leads Microsoft India and South Asia, says we should get even more excited about AI, the Economic Times reports.

The big story

The open-source AI boom is built on Big Tech’s handouts. How long will it last?

open and closed doors with a ribbon of text running around and through them

STEPHANIE ARNETT/MITTR | ENVATO

May 2023

Last year a leaked memo written by a senior engineer at Google said out loud what many in Silicon Valley must have been whispering: an open-source free-for-all is threatening Big Tech’s grip on AI.

New open-source large language models—alternatives to Google’s Bard or OpenAI’s ChatGPT that researchers and developers can study, build on, and modify—are dropping like candy from a piñata. These are smaller, cheaper versions of the best-in-class AI models created by the big firms that (almost) match them in performance—and they’re shared for free.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. AI won’t thrive if just a few mega-rich companies get to gatekeep this technology or decide how it is used. But this open-source boom is precarious, and if Big Tech decides to shut up shop, a boomtown could become a backwater. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

We can still have nice things

+ Paul McCartney has been reunited with a beloved bass guitar that was stolen 51 years ago. 
+ How to have a better relationship with money.
+ Obsessed with Nimbus and his marvelous piano skills. 
+ Cracking up at this game where you have to guess if a name refers to antidepressants or a character from Tolkien.

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