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Ask Eartha Steward

EARTHA STEWARD
High Country Conservation Center
High Country Conservation Center
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“Is chewing gum something I can throw in my compost bin?”

” Jason S., Dillon

Glad you ask Jason. I actually get this question all the time. When I was first asked, I realized that I’ve never thought about what chewing gum is made of or where it comes from. I know that I constantly remind Mr. Steward not to throw his gum out the window of the car for the sake of some porcupine walking around with his quills stuck together. Or even worse, a fox with a belly full of Strappleberry and Grapermelon Juicy Fruit.

To answer your question ” no, chewing gum will not break down in a compost pile.

Contrary to most belief, chewing gum, bubble gum, Willy Wonka’s three-course dinner gum … does not biodegrade. Just like cigarette butts, you can’t throw them in the woods or on the side of the highway and expect them to break down like a banana peel.

Think about all of the places you’ve encountered old wads of gum ” on the sidewalk, on the bottom of your shoe, under the table at a restaurant, on the ski lift, on the side of a trash can (instead of in the trash can)… not to mention the number of times you woke up as a kid to find it in your hair!

Taking those sticky situations into consideration, what do you think chewing gum is made of? Well in the old days, gum was a biodegradable substance that usually consisted of some kind of tree sap. For example, the American Indians chewed spruce sap, the Greeks chewed resin from mastic trees, and the Mayans chewed chicle or sap from the sapodilla tree.

In the mid-1800s, gum was made of natural chicle. However, just like most consumer products, manufacturers found a shortcut to mass production using synthetics.

Thomas Adams accidentally invented today’s chewing gum when he was experimenting with materials for car tires. That’s right folks ” car tires!

Many modern chewing gums actually use synthetic rubbers instead of natural gum bases made from sap. I emphasize synthetic again because gum doesn’t come from a magical gum tree. Chewing gum basically consists of a gum base, sweeteners, flavoring, and sometimes food coloring.

Gum manufacturers consider the gum base their “secret” ingredients. Gum bases can consist of plastic, rubber, and/or wax. And many chewing gums use petroleum-based polymers in the gum base consistency. So not only do plastic bags and bottles come from the pump, but our bubble gum does too!

Just like Willy Wonka didn’t want to share the recipe of his “most amazing fabulous sensational gum in the whole world,” chewing gum manufacturers keep their gum base ingredients to themselves. Gum is actually exempt from FDA labeling requirements for foods and so the true gum base makeup doesn’t have to be labeled anything other than “gum base.”

I figured all you Violet Beauregardes should know that gum base components have been found to consist of materials like petroleum, polyethylene, polyvinyl acetate, petroleum wax, stearic acid, and latex. In fact, major concern has risen about potential carcinogens in gum bases due to use of vinyl acetate.

Maybe gum isn’t as scary as I’ve made it out to be. Most people do spit it out after 15 minutes anyways. But what about all the gum litter and waste? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans chew about 1.8 pounds of gum per person each year.

Multiply that with two-thirds of the population that is estimated to chew gum and you got a huge pile of non-degradable goo.

Gum popularity has actually increased over the years especially with non-smoking campaigns that have turned many smokers to nicotine chewing gum. The government coined a caffeine-laced gum called Stay Alert that is equivalent to a cup of coffee and helps soldiers stay awake through their long shifts.

Companies are also experimenting with medicinal gum. Recently, xylitol was added to gum to produce cavity-fighting bursts every time you chew. Soon we may see vitamins, minerals, and medicines in chewing gum to relieve headaches and bad breath. Wrigley has already patented Viagra gum.

If chewing gum does not biodegrade, where will all the gum waste go? Some have suggested recycling and reusing chewed gum. There is a movement in Great Britain to keep chewing gum off the streets by collecting it in bins and recycling it. Gum bin manufacturers claim they can recycle gum into useful materials such as drainage systems. Or we could follow Singapore’s footsteps and outlaw chewing gum altogether.

For now, canning the gum habit may not be the answer. Instead, think about what you’re putting into your body and research the product makeup of your favorite gum. Take simple steps like remembering that chewing gum is not biodegradable. So the next time you are tempted to throw your gum out the window keep in mind the wildlife, the environment, and someone else’s shoe.

Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier, Jennifer Kirkpatrick and Heather Christie, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Eartha believes that you can walk gently on our planet, even if you’re wearing stylie shoes.

Submit questions to Eartha at eartha@highcountryconservation.org with Ask Eartha as the subject or to High Country Conservation Center, P.O. Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.


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