Chewing gum as we know it today serves much the same purpose as it did for the ancient Greeks, chewing on Mastiha gum, or the Mayans with their chicle. It freshens the breath, tastes good and can provide a meditative distraction. But in terms of what you’re actually putting in your mouth, all similarities with traditional gums end there.
Modern gums consist of entirely synthetic petrol-based polymers and a host of synthetic sweeteners and stabilizers. Aside from the obvious sustainability problems of deriving consumer products from non-renewable resources, and the under-researched health problems, chewing gum presents a huge problem for disposal.
Modern synthetic chewing gums are hydrophobic (don’t dissolve in water) and have polymers that bind easily to asphalt, making removal of black wads from pavements a costly, time-consuming exercise for local authorities. Current methods include blasting dried chewing gum with corrosive chemicals, freezing or steaming it off.
It’s estimated that each lump of gum costs taxpayers between €0.65 and €2.30 for local cleanup services to remove. The total cost of cleaning chewing gum off streets is estimated at £10 million in London alone. Even when disposed of in bins, chewing gum ends up in landfill where it never biodegrades.
A piece of chewing gum may not seem like a great deal of trash, but consider that around the world we chew 100,000 tons of it a year and it starts to add up.
Chicle gum is a natural product of the chicle tree that grows in the rainforests of central and North America. It became the key ingredient in the first mass-produced chewing gum when in 1866 Thomas Adams, having failed to vulcanise 2 tons of chicle latex into rubber for carriage wheels, decided to add sweetener and flavouring to it, and sell it to Americans. Bought out by a certain William Wrigley, the gum rapidly became a phenomenon. During World War Two, U.S. chemists developed synthetic rubber, which has now largely replaced gum base from natural sources.
However, while the company that dominates the chewing gum sector continues its research into new biodegradable elastomers, a Mexican cooperative, Consorcio Chiclero, is resurrecting the traditional technique of sapping the chicozapote trees of the rainforests of southeastern Mexico to harvest the chicle gum. This is one of the only rainforests to have been sustainably managed in Mexico, much of the rest having been cleared for cattle grazing and extensive agriculture.
The harvested chicle gum is boiled and mixed with natural waxes to create the chewy gum base, then natural sweeteners (including agave syrup) and flavours are added. As well as tasting delicious, supporting traditional livelihoods and helping to conserve precious rainforest, Chicza gum is also entirely water-soluble and biodegrades completely in contact with bacteria and enzymes in just 2 weeks. The nutrients of the decomposed gum even enhance soil.
If we want to close the materials loop and avoid sending valuable resources to landfill, finding biodegradable alternatives that can be properly reintegrated into the ecosystem is part of the solution.
When faced with a choice between a gum that uses precious finite resources and will litter the environment for eternity, or one that comes from renewable, natural sources and returns to the earth, which would you pick?