The Sticky Origins of Chewing Gum

Ancient Greeks found pleasure and stress relief from chewing mastic gum, a resin obtained from the bark of the mastic tree. Evidence shows that the ancient Mayans of Central America chewed chicle, a natural gum derived from the sapodilla tree, which they valued both for its refreshing taste and as a way to quench thirst or stave off hunger.

In North America, indigenous peoples chewed the resin from spruce trees, passing this custom on to European settlers. This exchange highlights the universal appeal and utility of chewing substances throughout human history.

The turn from chewing gum as a simple, natural practice to a commercial product commenced in the 19th century. John B. Curtis who is credited with creating and selling the first commercial chewing gum in 1848, made from spruce tree resin. This marked the beginning of the chewing gum industry.

Thomas Adams initially attempted to use chicle, the same substance chewed by the Mayans, as a rubber substitute but eventually fashioned it into a chewable product that gained popularity in the United States. This set the stage for the mass production and widespread consumption of chewing gum, transforming it into the commercial product familiar worldwide today.

The transition from natural resins to synthetic gum bases in the 20th century made it possible to produce gum at a lower cost and with longer-lasting flavor and texture and introduced environmental concerns associated with gum litter, as these synthetic bases are not biodegradable.


Rising Popularity, Rising Problems

Urban expansion created densely populated public spaces, such as streets, parks, and transit systems, where the likelihood of gum being discarded improperly increased. The biodegradable natural resins chewed by our ancestors had been replaced by synthetic bases that did not break down easily, leading to the accumulation of gum litter on pavements, under seats, and in other public places.

Gum spots on sidewalks and other surfaces created an unsightly public image that detracted from the cleanliness and aesthetic appeal of urban environments. The removal of gum litter proved to be a challenging and costly endeavor for municipal authorities. Cleaning operations required specialized equipment and substantial labor, diverting resources away from other important public services.

The synthetic components of modern chewing gum are resistant to natural degradation processes, meaning that discarded gum can persist in the environment for many years. This durability poses threats to wildlife and contributes to the broader issue of synthetic waste accumulation, a concern that extends far beyond the confines of urban areas.


Shifting Attitudes and Rising Awareness

Cleaning gum from public spaces requires the use of specialized equipment, making it an expensive endeavor for local governments. This financial burden, borne by taxpayers, highlighted the broader implications of what many considered a minor or inconsequential act. As awareness of these costs grew, so too did the understanding that individual actions, such as properly disposing of gum, could significantly reduce public expenditure and contribute to the overall cleanliness of urban environments.

Gum Litter Public AwarenessEducational campaigns often initiated by environmental groups, municipalities, and sometimes even gum manufacturers, sought to inform the public about the non-biodegradable nature of most chewing gums and the challenges posed by their disposal. Highlighting the connection between personal habits and larger environmental and economic issues, these initiatives aimed to encourage more responsible behavior.

The introduction of specialized disposal bins and boards in areas with high pedestrian traffic made it easier for people to dispose of their gum responsibly, providing a practical solution that aligned with the growing desire for cleaner public spaces. The increased availability of such disposal options served as a constant reminder of the collective effort required to address the issue of gum litter.

The rise of social media and digital communication platforms has significantly amplified the message of gum litter awareness. Campaigns and initiatives can now reach a wider audience more quickly than ever before, encouraging a collective shift in behavior on a scale that was previously unattainable. This digital dimension has enabled the sharing of information, best practices, and innovative solutions to gum litter, fostering a sense of global community and shared responsibility.

Gum recycling programs collect chewed gum and repurpose it into a range of new products, from rubber for footwear to composite materials used in industrial applications. The process involves cleaning and breaking down the gum into a compound that can be molded and shaped as needed. This approach promotes the principles of the circular economy by turning waste into a resource.

Scientists and manufacturers are exploring new ingredients and manufacturing processes that could make gum less adhesive and easier to remove from surfaces. This area of development holds the potential to significantly reduce the cost and effort associated with cleaning up gum litter, offering a proactive approach to the problem.


The Role of Personal Responsibility

Personal responsibility involves recognizing the consequences of one’s actions and making conscious choices that reflect a commitment to the well-being of the community and the environment. Tthis means opting to dispose of gum properly — using trash bins or specialized gum disposal units — rather than discarding it carelessly in public spaces. Such a simple act, when multiplied by millions of people, can significantly reduce the amount of gum litter and alleviate the burden on public cleaning services.

Awareness is the first step towards change, and by understanding the environmental impact of synthetic gum and the challenges of its removal, individuals are more likely to adopt and advocate for responsible disposal habits. This knowledge can influence consumer behavior, such as choosing biodegradable gum options or supporting brands that engage in environmentally friendly practices.

Personal responsibility can involve engaging in or organizing clean-up initiatives, supporting local policies aimed at reducing gum litter, and contributing to public awareness campaigns. Communities can create a culture of responsibility and care for public spaces that deters littering behavior, including that of chewing gum.


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