All across our pavements, roads, footpaths and street corners, we can find someone’s used chewing gum that has been spat out and impressed firmly downwards; if it’s not a couple disparate pieces, then it’s in heaps that have exploded across large areas and left surfaces riddled with white and grey spots. But asides from how much of an eyesore it can be, their long-lasting effect on the environment will come to a surprise to many, and attempts to limit its harm are urgent and necessary.


About 80-90% of chewing gum is not disposed of properly according to a 2015 study, and it is also one of the most commonly found types of litter, second only to cigarette butts, unsurprisingly. The vast majority of chewing gum is not biodegradable, and of course is notoriously difficult to remove from surfaces that it has become stuck to. Efforts can be made by local councils and governments to clean streets of it but the process can be lengthy and costly (in fact, about 10p per piece, which is more than each piece costs to produce), and considering the harm it can do to our environment improvements in sustainability need to be made.


Innovation and advancement is being worked on from two different angles: both organisations and councils, and gum companies. Used gum receptacles made specifically for this purpose, as well as simple signs on lampposts that are clearly advertised to encourage people to stick their gum onto instead of potentially tossing it onto the street, have been tested out and implemented widely to what seems to be a positive effect. Over a six-month period in 2006, the wall-mounted Gummy Bin reduced gum litter on the streets by about 72%. If the gum can then be recycled using newly developed technology, it can be used to make drainage and construction materials. Independent and government-organised ad campaigns, as well as simple recycling icons on their packets, have also been reported to reduce litter by 25-40%. 


What’s even more impressive is that some gum manufacturers have been working on new types of alternative chewing gum that is sustainable and biodegradable. It’s made from a national rubber-based material called chicle, which makes it easier to remove off of surfaces, dissolvable with water and completely biodegradable within two weeks. This gum is akin to the type of gum that was chewed by ancient Mayans, as chicle comes from Mesoamerican trees, referring to an area of North America that includes places like Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. This is as opposed to the synthetic plastics of polymers that normal gum is made of, which is what makes it non-biodegradable.


It can potentially last in the environment’s natural reusing and recycling cycle for up to five years for a single piece, and this effect is worsened due to the fact that it is one of the most commonly confused waste products that animals mistake to be food. On top of this, if fish are to eat chewing gum, not only will toxins then be accumulated in them, but the polymers will also then be reintroduced back into food chains.


The problem has become so severe and widespread that it lead to a ban of selling and importing chewing gum in Singapore in 1992, with the exception of medically prescribed gum from a doctor or pharmacist, or nicotine gum; as a result, the streets of the cities in Singapore are practically spotless.


In a worst case scenario, mindless littering of pieces of chewing gum can lead to widespread damage to our environment, and a vicious cycle of it, too. So, whilst new methods are tested and advancements in research and product development are being made, it’s ultimately vital to remember that this does not even need to be a problem, if we stop ourselves from spitting our gum out onto the street.


Leo Gregory