The Green Lantern: Is chewing gum bad for the environment?


(MICHAEL SLOAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 18, 2011

Gum is a blight on civilized society. It’s always hiding on the underside of tables, or flattened on the pavement, or sticking to my shoes. Is it bad for the environment, too?

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of environmental data on the chewing-gum industry. But given how useless gum is, at least for most people, the Lantern isn’t prepared to cut Big Chew much slack. Unlike food, gum provides no sustenance. Unlike geothermal power, it does no work. Unlike books and computers, gum conveys no knowledge. Sure, the sugar-free sort can help prevent tooth decay to some degree. But hey, brush your teeth, man.

And yet, gum-chewing has a long history, going back to the ancient Greeks, who chewed a gumlike product derived from the resin of the mastic tree. (The tree’s name shares a linguistic root with the verb “to masticate.”)

Indigenous North Americans and early European settlers got their chomp on with spruce sap; the first commercially sold gum in the United States followed the same recipe. In 1850, manufacturers swapped out tree sap for paraffin wax. The resulting gum was more stable and cheaper to make, but it was a lame product. If you’ve ever tried to chew those silly wax lips, you know why. Paraffin wax is stiff and only softens after several minutes of jaw-busting labor.

Twenty years later, a Mexican exile named General Antonio de Santa Anna and American photographer Thomas Adams introduced chicle, a resin, from the sapodilla tree to the American palate. They had been trying to vulcanize the resin into rubber for boots and tires, and failed. As a last attempt to salvage their stash of chicle, Adams and the general made the sap into chewing gum, which had a subtle caramel flavor. Sweeter than spruce and much more pliable than paraffin wax, Adams’s chicle quickly caught on nationwide. Within a few years, he was mass-producing several flavors.

Decades after chewing gum became an American obsession, most manufacturers ditched chicle, replacing the natural resin with a synthetic polymer known as polyisobutene. Today, Goodyear — the same company that may make your car’s tires — manufactures the base for many major gum brands. (Chicle isn’t entirely lost to history; in fact, it’s making a comeback as an eco-friendly alternative to modern gum.)

While the new base produces a supremely soft and chewable gum, it’s not biodegradable. In fact, as your parents or teachers might have reminded you, it passes through your incredibly acidic digestive tract largely unaltered.

There’s probably not enough gum in the world to create a major environmental issue, but the volume of waste is not entirely insignificant. Worldwide, humans chew about 560,000 tons of gum each year, according to one study.

A few entrepreneurial greenies have developed technology to recycle chewed gum, which they can turn into rubber containers and children’s toys. But that means chewers would have to throw their used gum into specially designated waste containers, rather than into ordinary trash bins.

Convincing people to jettison their gum into dedicated bins might be asking a lot, considering how many of us decline even to use regular trash cans. A sickening amount of chewed gum ends up on the ground, and cleaning it up takes a staggering amount of resources. Consider London, which has crusaded against street-stuck gum in advance of the 2012 Olympics. The city says that it spent three months steam-cleaning 300,000 pieces of gum off fewer than two miles of street. A piece of gum costs Londoners just a nickel. It cost the city up to a bit more than $3 to remove each wad from the pavement.

It’s difficult to quantify the cleanup effort’s environmental impact; the city hasn’t said how much steam it used, or what sort of noxious chemicals might have seeped into the groundwater. (British chemical engineers are working to develop eco-friendlier cleaning methods.) Even so, the dollars spent on the effort could have been better spent on recycling or promoting composting.

None of the major gum manufacturers has released life-cycle analyses on their products. A group of Dartmouth students did, however, analyze several types of gum wrappers in 2008. It turns out that Bubble Tape-style products — where a single plastic shell, rather than many individual wrappers, holds the gum — were responsible for the least amount of greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Green Lantern column is produced by the online magazine Slate, which can be read at www.slate.com.

Given how useless gum is, at least for most people, the Lantern isn’t prepared to cut Big Chew much slack.

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