Whether you’re using it to freshen your breath, keep your teeth clean during the day, or just to reduce stress, chewing gum is one of the most versatile snacks and one that is used by 168 million people in the US alone.
With so many people chewing gum, and with it being the largest foodstuff litter item, accounting for 15% of all litter recorded worldwide according to a 2015 study, one can’t help but think of the environmental impact of chewing gum. Let us take a look at the impact of gum litter on the natural world in an attempt to answer the question ‘is chewing gum bad for the environment?’.
What is chewing gum made of?
Up until the mid-1940s, chewing gum was made of a latex sap extracted from the Central American Sapodilla tree. The sap, known by the name of chicle, is a natural rubbery substance which was then mixed with flavouring, sugar, and, in some cases, colouring in order to produce commercial bubble gum.
Nowadays, chewing gum manufacturers have moved away from this natural substance and now employ synthetic bases. These synthetic plastics are either oil or petroleum-based and are essentially synthetic rubbers with the same temperature profile as the now disused chicle.
This move from a natural base substrate to a synthetic one has meant that chewing gum is no longer biodegradable and, when littered, leads to environmental degradation.
Is chewing gum biodegradable?
The move from a natural base substrate to a synthetic one has meant that chewing gum is no longer biodegradable and, when littered, leads to environmental degradation.
Because chewing gum is made almost entirely out of plastic, it can take hundreds of years for an oil or petroleum-based piece of commercial chewing gum to decompose. Add to this the fact that chewing gum cannot be recycled, either naturally or through technological means, and you realise that most of the commercial chewing gum one can buy nowadays is toxic for the environment. Because of the fact that it cannot be recycled, gum remains on the surface of the Earth or in the oceans for hundreds of years, possibly leading to many issues:
- Animals can, and often do, mistake chewing gum for food and end up ingesting this highly toxic substance. The digestive systems of many animals cannot handle gum, leading to disease or death.
- Fish consume the gum which ends up in our oceans. This is not only toxic to them in large quantities but, once the fish are caught and eaten by humans, our bodies come to be directly affected by it as well.
How can we reduce gum’s detrimental impact on the environment?
Because synthetic plastic-based chewing gum cannot be recycled, it pollutes the surface of our planet once discarded and takes hundreds of years to disappear. While it remains on our planet, it may be eaten by animals whose bodies are not designed to successfully digest it; this can lead to disease and, in some cases, death for these beings. If humans end up consuming these animals for food, the plastic is reintroduced into the food chain and can lead to health issues for us as well.
The solution is clear, we must make the move from synthetic plastic-based chewing gum to natural, decomposable gum which won’t lead to such catastrophic environmental consequences.
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