Environmental impact chewing gum

Is Gum Biodegradable? The Environmental Impact of Chewing Gum

Every day, people pop chewing in their mouths for various reasons, from coping under pressure to cleaning their teeth or just blowing bubbles. Fresh breath and fun times are how chewing gum is advertised but what the ads don't say is that you're chewing a synthetic polymer. Whatever benefits you gain from chewing gum can not outweigh the environmental impact of chewing plastic gum. 

From careless disposal to its inability to decompose, our gum addiction pushes plastic pollution forward rather stealthily. This article delves into the environmental impacts of chewing gum.

Is gum biodegradable? 

Cutting to the chase, one of the first questions many people ask is chewing gum biodegradable? The short answer is no due to its plastic contents.

However, plastic free biodegradable gum now exists. Read on to find out more about how bad plastic-based gum really is for the environment.

History of chewing gum

We can trace chewing gum back to ancient times. The Mayan people chewed chicle, the rubbery sap of the sapodilla tree that grows in Central America. The ancient Greeks chewed resin from the Mastic tree, and even the Native Americans enjoyed masticating on the resin from spruce trees.

The first version of the modern chewing gum was developed in 1871 by Thomas Adams. He used chicle, a resin from Mesoamerican trees. Interestingly he had received his chicle from Antonio López de Santa Anna, a former president of Mexico who was in exile in New York. Adams' chicle gum, translated as “sticky stuff,” replaced spruce tree resin, and for many years chicle was the main ingredient in gum. 

As the demand for chewing gum increased, Mexican farmers harvested chicle unsustainably. By the 1930s, a large portion of the Mexican sapodilla tree was dead. With dead trees, chicle became even more scarce, and manufacturers began to look for alternatives. After world war II, they soon found some petroleum-based polymers that could effectively replace chicle and proved easier to obtain. That's how modern chewing gum came to be.

What is chewing gum made of?

Many people who chew gums don't know exactly what chewing gum is made of. In ancient times chewing gum was just simply tree sap - a material called chicle was the most popular type of gum. Sadly, almost nobody chews that anymore.

Producers make modern chewing gum from a synthetic rubber base, making it chewy and super stretchy. They make chewing gum base from polymers of petrochemicals. Some of the major polymers in a gum base are butyl rubber, also known as polyisobutylene, paraffin, and polyvinyl acetate. Butyl rubber is the same polymer used in making car tires, agricultural chemicals, caulks, and sealants. Polyvinyl is used to make plastic flooring.

The gum base is essentially a trade secret, and manufacturers hardly ever reveal the exact kinds of synthetic plastics that are in their products. However, the FDA has a list of additives allowed in gums. Other ingredients involved in making chewing gum include synthetic colors, chemical preservatives, artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, talc, and calcium carbonate.

The impacts of chewing gum on the environment

Chewing gum on the shelf
Photo by Gabriel Dalton on Unsplash

Chewing Gum is a non-food item that is consumed by people everywhere. Around 50% of the U.S. population consumed chewing gum in 20193. Researchers put the global chewing gum market at USD 105 million in 2020, and some experts expect it to go beyond USD 133 million in 20271

This growth may be great for the gum-making economy but is detrimental to the environment. Even people practicing sustainable living may be chewing gum without realizing its environmental cost. That's because big chewing gum manufacturers have been careful to take away attention from the product's main components.

So is chewing gum bad for the environment? Below are some key environmental impacts of chewing gum on our planet.

Chewing gum is a massive litter problem

Chewing gum stuck under a shoe
Photo: Public Domain

Gum is the second most common form of litter, topped only by cigarette butts. People spit out this stale sticky treat anywhere on the street or stick it on walls, under tables, and chairs. 

If you have ever stepped on a gum that's been chewed or looked under a desk to find gum stuck there, you probably felt a little annoyed at whoever dropped their gum and caused you such inconvenience. But if you chew gum and fail to toss it in the bin, someone is most likely feeling annoyed at you too.

Most chewing gum waste is disposed of improperly, but that's not where it ends. Cleaning up the mess costs Scotland €1.5 to clean up a piece. A 2021 report estimated that the cost of cleaning up chewing gum from UK streets was £7 million yearly2.  

Gum is not biodegradable

Chicle and other types of tree sap chewing gum were biodegradable. People didn't need to cut down or harm trees to get them. They were sustainable. Today's gum is different and has more impact on the environment. 

After we chew away all the artificial flavors and sweeteners, all that's left of your sweet bubble gum is plastics. When we swallow gum, even our bodies find it challenging to digest chewing gum. 

And we know that plastics are not biodegradable; that is, they cannot decompose into organic matter, useful for the soil. What it does is photodegrade, breaking into microscopic particles. And photodegradation takes years. It could take 100 years or more for plastic-based gum to decompose. 

When plastics don't biodegrade, they leach into the environment slowly as microplastics, which become highly toxic. These toxic microplastics end up in our digestive system through fish or tap water.

Is gum compostable?

We can’t compost chewing gum. Along similar lines chewing gum products, as a result of gum bases that include plastic, do not break down in compost. As such, after achieving breath minty fresh, your gum discards won’t serve to nourish your garden or pretty much anything at all. 

Chewing gum is poisoning wildlife

Every year, we chew tons of gum that end up as plastic garbage. Sometimes bubble gum stays stubbornly stuck on the roadside; other times, it finds its way to the landfills or drainage system. Most gum waste that gets into the waterways and ends up in the ocean.

Fishes, birds, and other animals are in danger from discarded gum. They mistake the tiny plastic bits for food and ingest it. Of course, it won't digest but can cause them to choke. It could get stuck in their digestive system and cause them to die of starvation.

Discarded gum can contain phthalates, dibutyl phthalate, or diethylhexyl phthalate, which are toxic to animals. Xylitol in gum can also make animals very sick. Gum can also trap bacteria in it, and as it breaks down, it becomes a magnet for toxins.

Chewing gum encourages the waste of non-renewable resources

The main ingredient in modern gum today is essentially plastic, a product of petroleum, a fossil fuel. The extraction of fossil fuels is damaging to the environment. It pollutes rivers, releases tons of greenhouse gases, and damages agricultural land. 

Processing petroleum into gum base is no less polluting. And then, after the gum has been chewed, it further contributes to plastic pollution. All of this contributes heavily to climate change.

Apart from the intense pollution, fossil fuel is a non-renewable natural resource. We have no way of replacing it once we have used it up. Now, it doesn't seem very environmentally responsible for us to chew the valuable resource up.

How to stop chewing gum pollution

2 friends chewing gum
Photo by sergio souza

Gum pollution is fast becoming a major environmental issue, and everyone needs to help stop it. 

What government and NGOs are doing

Singapore banned chewing gum in 1992. In 2004, they lifted the ban to allow medicinal gums. However, gum littering is still met with severe fines in Singapore, Poole, and other places. The Chewing Gum Action Group, made up of authorities, environmental groups, and gum manufacturers, is tackling gum litter in the UK.

What enterprises are doing

Biodegradable chewing gum

Some companies produce plastic-free chewing gum that can decompose into organic matter. These sustainable gum brands have worked with scientists to create biodegradable gum with all-natural ingredients. Chewsy is free from plastics, gluten, and animal products. Chicza is another biodegradable option manufactured by

Recycling gum 

Gum Drop

British designer Anna Bullus set up the first company to recycle chewing gum. They collect gum already chewed gum from special bins and recycle them into pencils, coffee cups, and shoe soles.

Recycle with Gumdrop

TerraCycle

With their gum recycling programs in the UK, the US, and Mexico, recycling company TerraCycle gives gum a new life. They blend the gum with other plastics and make rubber flooring and door stops.

Recycle with TerraCycle

What you can do

Bubble gum consumption is an environmentally unsustainable habit. Whether you are a fan of gum and like to blow bubbles or not, there are a few things you can do to stop gum pollution.

Dispose of already chewed gum properly

Don't spit out your chewing gum just anywhere or on anything. It is important to dispose of your gum properly, and it helps reduce the disgusting litter. You should put it in a bin, but that solves like 1% of the problem.

Chew less plastic-based gum

Even when you throw gum into the trash, they end up in landfills where it won't decay. Because chewing gum recycling projects are few and are not available everywhere, you can cut back on your favorite gum much as you would any other pollutant. 

Choose biodegradable chewing gum

Ordinarily, we would say that you shouldn't chew gum at all. But there are certain therapeutic and physical benefits associated with gum. So if you must chew gum, go for biodegradable chewing gum. Some options for biodegradable chewing gums are Cheesy, Glee Gum, Simply Gum, and Chicza.

Conclusion

Is chewing gum bad for the environment?

Looking into the environmental impact of chewing gum, you will agree that it is terrible for the environment. We hope like with plastic straws, people will take sustainable actions to reduce gum pollution. If you don't want to avoid chewing gum, ensure you are chewing biodegradable gum.

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Pin Image Portrait Is Gum Biodegradable? The Environmental Impact of Chewing Gum
1

Global Chewing Gum Market Growth USD 133170 million by 2027: Overview, Revenue, Facts, Figures, Key Companies Profiled. February 16, 2022 01:32 ET. Absolute Reports

2

WRAP. 2021. Financial Cost of Packaging Litter

3

Trenda E., 2021. Chewing Gum Market - Statistics & Facts. Statista

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Valkyrie Pierce on Unsplash
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