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Biodegradable alternative or a levy - gum makers should chew on that

By Jane Byrne , 10-May-2010
Last updated the 10-May-2010 at 15:04 GMT

It’s a sticky issue that just won’t go away. There are sugar-free, tooth whitening and nicotine added versions but none from leading makers, as yet, that are dissolvable in rain.

Yes, chewing gum, as every street cleaner knows, is still a pain to remove from pavements.

This month saw Irish anti-litter campaigners once again calling for levies to be imposed on chewing gum companies to fund the clean-up of the sticky mess on Irish streets, citing data to show industry funded anti-gum dropping campaigns are coming unstuck.

It is estimated that the cost of removing chewing gum from city pavements and benches is approximately between €3 and €20 per square metre.

But gum companies insist that it is the irresponsible consumer and not the product that is the cause of the gum litter problem. They claim their anti-gum litter campaigns are effective, and this week announced an intention to fund a new education drive in Ireland to push this message home.

Paul Kelly, director of industry representatives, Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII), told this publication that: “As a nation we need to clean up our littering habits, but paying for clean ups is not a long-term sustainable solution to the litter problem.”

He is right. Paying for clean ups is a financial headache but should it be the tax payer that funds it?

And shouldn’t gum companies also consider the sustainability angle when it comes to their product?

Chewing gum’s non-biodegradable petrol-based polymers that make it stretchy also make it durable, resistant to weather and chemicals and, moreover, very, very sticky.

And, really, isn’t it naïve to assume that gum will never find its way on to pavements if there are enough awareness raising drives about irresponsible behaviour?

“We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road," remarked C.S Lewis.

Perhaps it is time for gum makers to ensure that ‘right road’ is not encrusted with litter black spots by stepping up research into a biodegradable alternative or a gum that won’t stick to make it easier to lift and clean.

And a stated commitment to such accelerated R&D in Ireland would mean industry could also avoid the imposition of the proposed gum tax, which is said to be gaining support with regulators.

Gum litter is not a particularly Irish problem. It is a worldwide one.

Thus an Irish levy could have serious consequences for gum companies if it acted as a global precedent, in the way the Irish plastic bag tax and smoking ban have done.

While a tax would involve relatively little financial outlay in terms of Ireland alone, the fiscal toll of such an initiative worldwide would be significant for the gum manufacturers.

Wrigley has reportedly received five patents since 1999 for 'environmentally friendly' gum varieties, but it cautions that a commerically viable form could still be years away.

However, Revolymer, a technology company based in Bristol in the UK, said it has developed a non-adhesive gum, which it claims is easily removable from all surfaces and has long lasting flavour.

And, Waitrose, the leading UK retailer, already stocks what is purported to be the world’s first biodegradable gum from a Mexican cooperative. It is made out of natural chicle and is said to become non-adhesive when dry and to decompose in six weeks.

Split atoms? An end to poverty? No, just non-stick gum.

If Mexican farmers and a start-up firm can offer a greener gum, why not the leading manufacturers?

And, with chewing gum proving to be one of the fastest growing segments of the confectionery industry, such an alternative could only serve to send that market skyward.

Now that’s something not to be spit on.

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