Love it or hate it, chewing gum is everywhere in our daily lives.
It’s usually the first thing we reach for to get rid of that soul-destroying garlic breath. It hides on most sidewalks, waiting to hitch a ride on any shoe that happens to step on it. As kids, we savored its sweet, fruity flavor as we popped and smacked it against our lips.
Chewing gum is said to help us digest food better. But when you see how much chewing gum there is littered on our streets, you can’t help but wonder how environmentally-friendly it is.
In this article, we explore the history of chewing gum and how long it takes to decompose.
History of chewing gum
Chewing gum has been a part of human society for hundreds of years.
When the ancient Maya ruled Central America between 300 BCE to 1500 CE, they chewed gum regularly to stave off hunger. The Mayans extracted a chewable resin called chicle from the sapodilla tree by making strategic cuts into it. They then cooked the resin and dried it into a chewable gum called ‘cha’. The ‘cha’ helped the Mayans freshen their breath and suppress their thirst.
Around about the same time, the ancient Greeks and Scandinavians also chewed on similar plant-derived substances made from birch-bark tar. In North America, Native American peoples chewed spruce tree resin to clean their teeth and treat ulcers. This natural gum product was later introduced to European settlers in the 1500s, who harvested it and marketed it as a treatment for coughs and constipation.
By the 1800s gum became a mass food product in North America. An inventor named Thomas Adams Sr. sourced chicle from sapodilla trees in Mexico with the alleged assistance of an exiled Mexican president named General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. They originally intended to produce an industrial rubber product but quickly discovered a public demand for a chewing gum product and began selling it widely.
Chewing gum became such a huge success that it was further expanded by William Wrigley Jr. of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum fame. He aggressively advertised his product, even going as far as sending sticks of gum to American children on their second birthday.
By the Second World War, chewing gum was a staple in military rations to help soldiers cope with stress, hunger, and thirst. Their popularity led to a shortage of chicle, which led manufacturers to look towards synthetic ingredients as a replacement for chicle.
What is chewing gum made of today?
Today, most chewing gum is made from petrochemicals. The scarcity of chicle sapodilla during World War II convinced manufacturers that synthetic ingredients were the best way to sustain production.
Manufacturers rely on waxes, plastics, and synthetic rubber to give chewing gum its elasticity and long chew time. The wax is added for softness while synthetic rubbers such as food-grade butyl rubber and plastics are combined to create the chewy, elastic gum base.
Other ingredients are also added to give chewing gum its flavor and keep it fresh. Natural and artificial flavors like spearmint oil and fruit essences give chewing gum distinct flavors. Antioxidants and glycerol keep the gum fresh for long periods, while sweeteners make chewing gum appetizing.
These ingredients are then combined in a sigma mixer, which kneads the gum into the same consistency as bread dough. Following that the gum is rolled into sheets or cut into small blocks, cooled, and packaged. The ingredients used to make chewing gum are so shelf-stable that there is no law requiring manufacturers to add expiration dates for their products.
Is chewing gum biodegradable?
Chewing gum is not biodegradable. Most chewing gum products are made from inorganic polyisobutylene or polyvinyl acetate rubber bases which are both resistant to biological breakdown processes.
These are the same materials used to make adhesives and tire tubes. They’re designed to be long-lasting for heavy-duty use. That’s why so much chewing gum exists on our sidewalks, benches, and lampposts for months, even years with very little change in their form.
Some studies suggest that chewing gum is second to cigarette butts when it comes to biodegradability. Both are made of plastic that cannot be broken down by living organisms, such as bacteria, in the environment. According to a study by Keep Britain Tidy, a British charity, 95% of the United Kingdom’s streets are stained with gum.
And it’s not just their abundance on streets that shows its inability to biodegrade. Our bodies are also unable to digest chewing gum when it’s swallowed. Despite the myriad digestive juices and microorganisms living inside us, small pieces of chewing gum easily pass out of the stomach intact.
In most cases, it is excreted in our stool. But there have been instances, mostly involving young children, where gum that’s swallowed gets stuck in the rectum. Doctors have no choice but to pull out these soft, elastic masses of multicolored chewing gum residue from the patients’ rectums as the gum can’t get discarded by the body naturally.
How long does it take for gum to decompose?
Though there has yet to be in-depth research on chewing gum’s rate of decomposition, it’s commonly agreed that chewing gum can take anywhere from 5 to 1,000 years to decompose.
This estimate comes from our current understanding of synthetic plastic and rubber. Bacteria and living organisms cannot break down these materials. The only things that can break them down are sheer brute force and UV light from the sun. These forces cause the rubber and plastic to disintegrate over several, if not hundreds of, years into microplastic fragments.
The long decomposition time is the main reason why researchers have started looking into other uses for chewing gum waste. Instead of waiting for chewing gum to decompose and pollute the environment, they’re experimenting with recycling solutions to give chewing gum a new life.
A recycling company called Terracycle has been running chewing gum recycling projects in Europe, the US, and Mexico to collect chewing gum litter, clean them, and blend them with other plastics to make new items such as door stops and playground equipment.
Another company called Gum Drop has partnered with chewing gum companies like Wrigley to recycle used gum into products such as pencils, frisbees, and coffee cups.
These companies hope that recycling can help governments save money on cleaning up gum litter, which can cost nearly £150 million a year in countries like the UK.
Gum’s larger long-term effects on the environment
Unfortunately, efforts to recycle chewing gum waste are not widespread enough to limit its impact on the environment.
This brings up several long-term environmental concerns if gum were to be allowed to collect in landfills and our urban and rural landscapes. According to some estimates, chewing gum already makes up 250,000 tons of waste in our planet’s landfills.
Birds, rodents, fish, and other animals may mistake the small wads of gum for food and munch on them. Gum can clog their digestive systems and fill their bodies with toxins. And as the sun breaks down the gum into microplastic debris, they may enter into our oceans and seas, further complicating the marine life food chain.
Gum may also cause air pollution. In the case of landfill fires or the burning of trash, the synthetic plastics and rubbers present in chewing gum may release harmful chemicals into the air. Breathing in these chemicals can increase our risk of asthma, cancer, and endocrine disruption.
Some animal studies even go so far as to suggest that long-term exposure to synthetic chemicals in chewing gum, such as phthalates dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), can affect human reproductive health.
We could experience problems such as birth defects and reduced sperm count in newborn male babies if we chew gum made from artificial ingredients regularly.
Should you stop chewing gum?
With all the problems that chewing gum can cause for the environment, it may be a good idea to stop buying gum from big-name brands like Wrigley, Chiclets, and Trident.
These brands continue to use synthetic ingredients to make their products. Plus, they contain high amounts of sugar that give no benefit to your health except for the supposed benefits of stress relief and relief from nicotine addiction. As some observers have put it, buying chewing gum is like buying a single-use plastic product that only serves to pollute our planet.
Thankfully, many chewing gum manufacturers are seeing an opportunity to return to previous methods of manufacturing chewing gum from natural chicle found in Central American rainforests. Brands such as True Gum, Chizca, and Chewsy offer 100% biodegradable chewing gum that can decompose in as little as 2 weeks.
These gums provide a healthy and environmentally-friendly alternative to mass-marketed chewing gum. And there are already signs that organic chewing gum may gain more support among gum fans. In 2017, chewing gum sales in the UK fell by 3.8 percent due to consumer concerns about the plastic and rubber content in synthetic gum products.
Other steps you can take in your life to help the environment
In addition to choosing environmentally-friendly chewing gum, you can also switch to a sustainable savings account.
Aspiration is an online finance platform that offers a high-yield savings account with up to 1.00% APY and no links to any environmentally-destructive oil companies.
Our customers can contribute to reforestation programs directly by opting into our Plant Your Change program, which helps you plant trees by rounding each transaction to the nearest dollar and using the spare change to plant a tree on your behalf.
It’s banking that’s designed to help you do good for the planet. Try Aspiration today to make the planet a better place.