It's a familiar cinematic scene. Someone is down on their luck and they can't catch a break. Nothing seems to be going their way, and just when things couldn't get any worse, it happens. They tread in some chewing gum.
For anyone who has attempted to remove a sticky clump from the bottom of their shoe, carelessly jettisoned gum is certainly a nuisance one tries to avoid. But it's not just an unsightly pain for pedestrians, it's also a huge headache for the British Government, which spends an estimated £150m cleaning gum off the streets each year. Of the 9,000 tons of chewing gum – 980 million packets – that Britons buy each year, around 80 per cent is simply dumped in public places. Considering gum takes as long as five years to degrade, it also means that it is posing a huge threat to the environment, and used gum is clogging landfills across the country.
But now, a number of enterprising experts are coming up with new ways to combat our significant gum problem; everything from inventing new types of degradable gum to recycling programmes.
Chewing gum is perhaps the world's oldest confectionery, with thickened resin and latex from certain types of trees, various sweet grasses, leaves, grains and waxes being just some of the materials used throughout the centuries. The ancient Greeks chewed mastiche, a chewing gum made from the resin of the mastic tree, while the Native Americans of New England introduced American colonists to the gum-like resin that forms on spruce trees when their bark is cut. Chewing gum being sold for commercial purposes dates back to the early 1800s, when lumps of this spruce gum began to be sold in the States. Modern gum products evolved from a chicle-based gum which was imported from Mexico to the US in the early 1860s, originally as an alternative for rubber. Chicle, a natural type of latex, was found to have a smoother and softer texture and held flavour better, although butadiene-based synthetic rubber replaced chicle as the gum base of choice in the 1960s.
There are myriad reasons why gum-chewing is one of the most popular habits in Britain (and it really is popular – 28 million of us are regular chewers). Apart from the obvious breath-freshening advantages, chewing gum, especially after meals, has been recognised by the British Dental Health Foundation to be effective in maintaining dental health. It has also been found that chewing can help people to relax, by reducing muscular tension. Research has also shown that chewing gum can help to increase people's ability to retain and recall information by increasing blood flow to the brain, thereby supplying additional oxygen.
So, the benefits of gum-chewing are many, but so are the negative financial and environmental implications. A British company called Revolymer is looking into the ingredients of gum as a way to combat the problems that arise from its littering. The brainchild of Terence Cosgrove, professor of physical chemistry at Bristol University, Rev7 gum uses a new polymer which, when mixed with the chewing gum, allows the gum to change its physical form. This patented, low-adhesion technology offers a breakthrough in chewing gum production. Roger Pettman, chairman and CEO of Revolymer, explains: "Typically, gum after you've actually chewed it has very oil-like properties. We've put a polymer in so now water will actually stick to the outside of the chewing gum, so when you're trying to remove it you're breaking oil and water rather than oil and oil. The concept is very simple but, of course, it's taken a few years to take to the development stage."
He goes on: "Every chewing gum will stick, but with ours, three out of four times, it can be removed by rainwater or the natural cleaning purpose. Any remaining can be squirted off using a power jet or something very simple; you don't need high-temperature steam or other processes that people are using. The other thing we found is that because we have this polymer, it actually allows water to come into the chewing gum cud and it starts dissolving a lot of the inorganics, so the gum degrades in time. We've done a load of experiments and if you leave our chewing gum just in water, in about three months it breaks down to 8 per cent of its original weight."
This gum will fully disintegrate into a fine powder within six months, analogous to biodegradable plastic bags.
Good new for conscientious chewers, but what does it actually taste like? "The challenge that we faced was to make the chewing as good, if not better, than the existing gums because there's no point having an environmentally sound product if it doesn't taste very good."
Rev7 gum will be available in American stores from April and in the UK from later next year, as soon as it has received European approval.
While not wishing to go as far as Singapore, which famously banned the import and sale of chewing gum in 1992, the Spanish government announced last month that it too is looking at new ways of manufacturing gum, to make a less sticky product available.
The government is hoping to employ a copolymer of vinyl acetate and vinyl laurate as the basis for the new Spanish gum, which, according to the health ministry, "sticks less, which makes cleaning easier". Time will tell whether Britain will follow suit.
Some people believe that the issue isn't about making it easier to clean the gum off the streets, but to encourage the public to dispose of their gum more responsibly.
The introduction of "Gummy Bins", colourful bins visibly dotted around busy areas with the sole purpose of being a place to discard used gum, has been widely applauded as an effective strategy: their presence has seen a 72 per cent reduction in chewing gum litter. Councils that have successfully introduced Gummy Bins include Basingstoke, Fife and Dudley.
There are a number of variations on these bins, another being the Gumdrop cycle, created by Anna Bullus. Walking home from university one day, Bullus recalls, "I suddenly saw all this gum and realised that gum is just synthetic rubber, and we always recycle rubber so why couldn't we recycle chewing gum?"
Bullus invented the world's first process that transforms chewed gum into a plastic that can be used for injection and blow-moulding. She spent four months in a chemistry laboratory creating a new plastic polymer from old gum.
The Gumdrop bins themselves are made from Gumnetic, the biodegradable material that Bullus developed, and all gum dropped into a Gumdrop bin is given a second life, going on to make the new bins, thus the cycle continues.
Gumdrop claims that if the British public placed 10 per cent of its used gum into specialised bins, it could make a further one million bins, which would then in turn help to collect the other 90 per cent of discarded gum.
But it's not just the Gumdrop bins that Bullus plans to make with recycled gum. "In the future, when we have enough gum, we can make other things like toys, mobile phone covers, wellington boots, almost any rubber product you can think of, even tyres."
"This year, we've concentrated on trialling the product at school, colleges, the council, the entertainment industry. We're officially launching the Gumdrop cycle in the UK and the US at the beginning of next year."
Bullus is also responsible for the Gumnetic Chewy Pad, another attempt to alleviate the burden chewing gum is putting on our landfills. She has created a cushion similar to those made from memory foam from a combination of recycled chewing gum and bioresin. "That was a one-off piece but it's something I definitely want to come back to in the future."
But will industry giants such as Wrigley and Cadbury join in with this new, ethical approach to chewing gum? A Wrigley spokesman says: "Although our primary focus is, and must continue to be, addressing the behaviour that brings about littered gum through education and awareness, the Wrigley Company is also committed to financing ongoing research and development into a new gum which is less adhesive/more degradable, should it be thrown away irresponsibly. Our spending in this area has accelerated in recent years, including the addition of new skill sets in the area of polymer science."
So, perhaps some time in the not-too-distant future, thanks to the work of some creative minds, having your day ruined by treading in an errant piece of gum might become a thing of the past.
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