This paper was written as part of the 2009 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

The Not So Happy Meal


James Allen
Darrin Gilman
Keegan Irving
Shannon Lindow
Christina Morrisett
Jessica Smyke

Team New Fish on the Dock

Cordova Jr/Sr High School
PO Box 140
Cordova, Alaska 99574


Happy Meal toys are contributing to the demise of Cordova's salmon fishery. China's coal burning factories that produce Happy Meals toys create air pollutants that form acid rain, which in turn increases both ocean and freshwater acidity. This leads to reduced salmon egg viability, juvenile growth, and ocean food availability. As a fishing town, Cordova is highly dependent on the income derived from Copper River Salmon fisheries. A decrease in fisheries will be felt by 77% of Cordova residents. We propose to replace existing toys with more eco-friendly alternatives. Replacing plastic toys with paper toys reduces the overall energy demand, plus paper toys are recyclable and will reduce household clutter.


Have you ever bought a Happy Meal? If you have, you are slowly contributing to the death of our town. Acid rain is being produced from factories manufacturing Happy Meal toys and is precipitating across Alaska, including the fishing based town of Cordova. Acid rain affects the salmon's fresh water and salt-water habitat by polluting their spawning grounds and acidifying the ocean and the food it provides. We propose to solve this problem by creating alternative toys that are more eco-friendly.

As factories make plastic Happy Meal toys, they are burning fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum products. Burning these fuels causes carbon dioxide to be released into the environment. Their large smokestacks push carbon dioxide gas (CO2) high into the atmosphere where it's trapped by the layers of the earth's atmosphere. Carbon dioxide in small amounts is not a bad thing, and in fact, is part of the natural cycle of nutrients on earth. However, the factories are producing excessive amounts of CO2. Whenever coal is burned, partials called "particulates" are released into the atmosphere. The sulfur in the coal mixed with oxygen form sulfur dioxide which is a major source of pollution.

Excess carbon in the atmosphere is diffused into the ocean environment through various feedback loops. This excess carbon in the ocean lowers the pH, increasing the acidity of the ocean. Until the industrial revolution began, the flow of carbon between the atmosphere and the ocean was in equilibrium. Since the industrial revolution began, the excess carbon in the atmosphere has led to greater flows of carbon into the ocean, altering the feedback loops.

Some scientists believe that the ocean has been acting like a "carbon sink," therefore slowing the effects of global warming and buying us some time to make changes. We should use this time to our advantage and make the necessary changes to negate the effects of surplus carbon emissions by starting somewhere small—like the Happy Meal toy factories in China.

Another way pollutants promote acidification is through acid rain. The wind that pushes storms toward Alaska originates in the Gobi Desert, in the inner part of Mongolia. The fast moving air allows little time for particles to precipitate during the journey, transporting more pollutants to Alaska.

Another way of transporting air pollutants to Alaska is by the jet stream. The jet stream is a narrow and variable band formation of westerly air currents that surround the earth. The jet stream often flows above Alaska and transports pollutants from Asia. These pollutants mix with water to create nitric acid. This leads to a reduction in the pH of rain and snow and contributes to decreasing ocean pH.


Acidification is caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolving into the ocean. The natural carbon cycle is the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide that is represented by a balance of changes in stability between the oceans, the earth's biosphere, and the atmosphere. While some of the CO2 remains in the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs a lot of it and plants take some as well. Human activities such as land-use changes, the burning of fossil fuels, and the production of cement have added new sources to natural carbon cycle. Dissolved CO2 reacts with water to form a balance of ionic and non-ionic chemical species: dissolved free carbon dioxide (CO2 (aq)), carbonic acid (H2CO3) bicarbonate (HCO3-) and carbonate (CO32-). The ratios depend on seawater temperature and alkalinity. Dissolved CO2 also increases the hydrogen ion concentration, which decreases the ocean pH.

While the absorption of CO2 is often considered when studying ocean acidification, there is another source that should be considered, and that is acid rain. Normal rainwater has a pH of 5.6, and when the pH level goes under 5.6, the rain is considered acidic ( rain/2.html). Acid rain is a mixture of wet and dry deposition that is caused by many sources including volcanoes, decaying vegetation, industrial processes, automobiles, power plants, erosion, oxidation of organic-rich sedimentary rocks, catastrophic events, and electric power generation that relies on burning fossil fuels such as coal. More acid rain is being generated because undeveloped nations are beginning to get more industrialized. Acid rain contains higher than normal amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids and occurs when gases react in the atmosphere with water, oxygen, and other chemicals to form various acidic compounds. Winds can blow these compounds over hundreds of miles ( See Figure 1.

Acid rain causes acidification in inland waters, affecting aquatic ecosystems, including fish. Acid rain releases aluminum from soils that then enter into lakes and streams, changing the chemical balance. As pH levels decrease, aluminum levels increase. Aluminum is most poisonous at pH 5 and is highly toxic to many species of aquatic organisms. It lowers fishes' body weight, which in turn makes fish less able to compete for food and habitat because of their smaller size. Acid rain also draws mercury from the ground, and the mercury runs into bodies of water. Fish are poisoned by leached mercury (

When the pH of water hits 5, most species of fish begin to die. If the pH is under 5, acidic conditions are lethal to most species of fish. Even if the pH is not lethal, though, it can cause fish to have physiological and ecological problems. Acid stress weakens fishes' immune systems; if adult salmon are exposed to levels of pH between 4.5 and 5, it prevents development in the embryos of their offspring and an increase in malformations in the embryos. Most fish eggs can't hatch in pH 5 ( Also, acid stress can interfere with endocrine control over reproduction in salmon and they are very sensitive to slight changes in pH. In freshwater environments, it only takes a slight acidification to around pH 6 to affect salmons' spawning behavior and cause them not to spawn (Schmandt and Roderick, 1989).

Acid rain affects both freshwater and saltwater. If fish have a hard time in the freshwater, they will have an even harder time in saltwater. This issue greatly pertains to Copper River salmon that travel 300 miles in tough conditions to their spawning grounds (

Acid rain can also come in the form of snow, building up during the winter months. As winter transitions into spring, the spring thaw deposits frozen acid, causing a sudden increase of acidity in lakes. This is known as "acid shock" and prevents aquatic species to reproduce, causing the death of hatchlings.

Both plants and animals can absorb acid rain. It gets into plants through soil and direct contact, and gets into animals through things that they eat and direct contact as well. When humans eat the plants and animals that contain the toxins from acid rain, they can potentially suffer from brain damage, kidney problems and Alzheimer's disease ( Mercury is an example of this. As mentioned, acid rain causes soil to leech toxins like mercury and aluminum. Mercury biomagnifies from the bottom to the top of the food chain and can be absorbed in a fishes' tissue, where it is unable to be cooked out.

Impact to Cordova

Cordova is a small, isolated coastal community located in Prince William Sound. The economy is heavily based on salmon fisheries. If the salmon population were to suffer due to the combined effects of acid rain in their fresh water environment and ocean acidification in their salt-water environment, Cordova's economy and residents would be greatly affected.

Cordova's population doubles during the salmon fishing season of May through September, swelling from a 2,500 year round population to a whopping 5,000 for the small town. This increase is highly dependant on fisheries through the jobs in commercial harvesting and processing. The summer boost is a predictable event that many Cordovan businesses rely on, especially when some businesses are only open during this season. If Cordova's fishing industry were to experience a harsh decline, not only would local businesses be affected, but permit holders, processors, and the crews for both, as well as the Cordova School District.

Permit holders are already experiencing issues in the number of salmon returning. This past year, the Copper River system experienced a salmon return of half of the previous 10-year average. Due to this decrease, fishermen had to focus on other salmon stocks like chum and sockeye in Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC) hatcheries. The last recorded poor Copper River returns was in the 1970's—before hatcheries were established (Pers. Comm. Glenn Hollowell).

Last year, there were 535 Prince William Sound/Copper River drift gillnet permits sold 278 (52%) of which claim to be Cordova residents (Pers. Comm. Glenn Hollowell). The average crew for gillnetting vessels consists of one person. In 2008 there were 520 salmon subsistence permits issued from the Cordova Fish and Game location, of those 407 (78%) declare themselves Cordova residents (Pers. Comm. Robin Morrisett). Also in 2008, there were 141 active seining permit holders (53%) of the total 267 in the Prince William Sound. Of these seining permits, 83 list their residency as Cordova (Pers. Comm. Jeremy Botz). Seining vessels consist of an average crew membership of four persons.

In total, if the salmon population were to plummet, not only would Cordova's economy take a hit, but from this past fishing season's statistics, an estimated 1,654 fishermen would be affected, nonresidents and residents alike. Based on the number of permit holders that claim Cordova as their residency, an estimated total of 768 Cordovan fishermen would be affected. (This number is based on the thought that each permit holder is a separate person, but an additional factor that hasn't been studied in this research is that seiners and gillnetters also take part in subsistence fisheries, so this number could face a decrease.)

Another factor to consider is the families that depend on the income earned from the fishing industry. The average family in Cordova consists of about 2.5 persons ( If each Cordova-based permit holder had a family that depended on the outcome of the past fishing season, an approximate total of 1,920 Cordovans of all ages would feel the direct economic burden. This number is 77% of Cordova's population.

It must also be taken into account that there are many other Cordova citizens that would be indirectly affected by the decline in the salmon industry, such as local businesses and the Cordova School District. In a town of Cordova's size, if these families were to move away in search of a more stable income, the town and Cordova's school would feel the effects, if not immediately, over time.

If the salmon population of Cordova's fishing Area E, the Prince William Sound and Copper River systems, were to experience a decline due to the combined affects of acid rain and ocean acidification on their habitat, the city of Cordova would also face a population and economical decline. These two go hand-in-hand. If Cordova's main source of income were to take a hit, tourism would come to a halt. Many of the tourists that visit Cordova come for the sole purpose of fishing, adding money to Cordova's economy during their visit. When they arrive, they stay in locally owned bed and breakfasts, motels, hotels, and the RV park. Tourists also eat out at the few restaurants, buy snacks at grocery stores, and spend money on souvenirs from local businesses throughout Cordova.

Tourism brings a substantial amount of money in the summer months and subtracting the income earned from this factor would hurt Cordova's economy. If Cordova's economy were to go down from lack of tourism, many more Cordovans would face money troubles than just the families and individuals affected by the salmon harvesting and processing industry. By merging both the individuals affected by tourism and fishing if the salmon population were to decrease, many people would feel the weight of the financial burden. Due to this potential burden, many residents might make the choice to move away from Cordova in search of a new source of income.

Besides the city of Cordova as a whole, the Cordova School District would also be greatly affected by a decrease in the salmon population. Schools educate the students who are the future of our nation. The school district is made up of one elementary school and a combined junior and senior high school. It educates a total of 385 students. For this district, the government provides funding of $5500 per student after a complex formula including the remoteness and taxable values of the community as well as special education issues. These funds contribute to staffing and the offerings available to Cordova's students (Pers. Comm. Jim Nygaard).

Typically, the district experiences a 7% student population reduction yearly but this number would likely increase if the fishing industry and overall economy were to decline. Currently, 70–75% of the 385-student populace is affected by the fishing industry and class sizes are shrinking considerably. The class of 2008 graduated more than 45 students last year, while the fifth grade class of 2008–9 only has 21 students currently enrolled. If the Cordova School District were to suffer a substantial student reduction in the coming years, the district may have to apply for provisions to assist our community. Though these provisions may help for a while, within 2–3 years after a considerably large reduction, the state would stop funding the school district altogether (Pers. Comm Jim Nygaard).

The remainging students would face many more troubles and hardships, such as a lack of teachers and an adequate education, as well as a loss of extra-curricular opportunities. Athletic, academic, and musical extra-curricular activities including basketball, future problem solving, and band provide students with chances to travel beyond the isolation of Cordova, experience new things, and prepare for the real world. Being able to take part in these opportunities helps students to grow stronger physically and mentally, learning teamwork, discipline, and integrity—important traits used in the work force.

Cordova's fishing industry is the community's center stage. Without it, Cordova would crumble and its total population would be greatly affected financially and educationally.

Our Solution

A solution is to provide McDonalds with an alternate toy that does not negatively affect the environment and is produced using less energy. The toys that McDonalds currently uses cost them $0.34 ( In order to appeal to McDonalds, the new toys must be less than what they're currently spending for the company to be willing to implement the alternate toys into their restaurants.

Some ideas for this plan include the use of paper toys such as animal trading cards, collectable crinkle critters, paper airplanes, paper dolls and small puzzles. These will all be made of recyclable or recycled paper and be made using less energy than the plastic toys now in use. The trading cards will feature an animal with interesting facts so the kids can learn about the animal while they eat. The collectable crinkle critters are pieces of paper that the kids can fold into different characters from the latest children's movie. There will be many different characters so the kids will be motivated to collect them all.

There may be questions as to how we are going to convince McDonalds to agree to these new toys. The solution to this is that we will tell them that these toys target the new generation of parents who are more ecologically aware and care about providing their kids with eco-friendly toys. Other benefits are that the new toys reduce clutter and subtract garbage headed to landfills. Another, more effective way would be to make the toys so that they are cheaper than the ones McDonalds currently buys from China. This way they will be more likely to buy into our proposal because they will ultimately be saving money. McDonalds will also want these toys because they provide better marketing, boosting kids desire to buy more Happy Meals because of the new toys offered.

These new toys will be made in the United States to help solve our problem of ocean acidification in Cordova (and other cities that are affected by the trade winds from China) by decreasing the amount of coal demand in China. Although these three factories are only a small portion of the source of our problem, it is enough to make a difference and start change. This solution is fairly easy to carry out and it could get the ball rolling for other groups to follow suit. Many other fast food restaurants have toys like McDonalds, and they might follow the example set, especially if it increases sales for McDonalds, which it most likely will. When more fast food companies start to follow, then this solution will branch out to other things that are not necessarily fast food restaurants. Some examples of these are arcades that offer toy prizes like Chuck-e-Cheese, carnival booths, and theme parks.

Making the toys in the U.S. will also help with decreasing ocean acidification because it decreases the distance that the toys have to be transported. This will decrease carbon emissions from the freighters and trucks, therefore decreasing ocean acidification. The decrease may not necessarily occur in Cordova, but wherever these means of transporting the toys would have made their emissions.


The negative effects of acid rain produced by China's coal burning Happy Meal toy factories are acidifying the ocean as well as fresh water bodies. Both of these are habitats for salmon and could greatly affect these fish. If the salmon population were to decline, Cordova as well as other fishing communities would slowly disappear. By replacing plastic Happy Meal toys with more eco-friendly ones, the United States and the city of Cordova would reap the benefits of such a change, thus making the Happy Meal happier once again.


the transport of acid rain

Figure 1.This figure follows the flow of acidic gases produced from coal burning factories and the effects they have on the environment after forming acid rain. The acidic gases produced from coal burning factories are carried by the wind and then precipitate elsewhere causing detrimental effects on plants and water bodies.