How green is your chewing gum?

Gum is a blight on civilised society. It’s always hiding on the underside of tables, or flattened on the pavement, or sticking to shoes. Is it bad for the environment, too? [A delightful article on the history of chewing gum and questioning its contemporary green credentials. Ed]

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 [the author] 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 a lame product. Paraffin wax is stiff and only softens after several minutes of jaw-busting labour.

Twenty years later, in 1869, 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 flavour. Sweeter than spruce and much more pliable than paraffin wax, Adams’ chicle quickly caught on nationwide. Within a few years, he was mass-producing several different flavours.

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 makes 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. To put that into perspective, Americans threw away 30 million tons of plastic in 2009, about 28 million tons of which wound up in landfills. If you want to make a rubber-to-rubber comparison, American toss out 290 million car tires every year, weighing in at over 3 million tons. Recycling is common, though: Only one-tenth of those tires are buried in landfills each year…… Read more