Local governments in the United Kingdom are calling on chewing gum manufacturers for more help with a sticky situation they say costs millions of British pounds a year.
Last week, the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 city councils in England and Wales, asked gum manufacturers to annually contribute £60 million — or nearly $77 million — to offset gum removal costs.
How big of a problem is gum litter? Apparently it’s more than the LGA can chew. Citing statistics from Keep Britain Tidy, an organization that campaigns to reduce litter and prevent waste, the LGA reported 64 percent of Britain’s roads and pavements and 99 percent of main shopping roads are stained with chewing gum.
In terms of cleanup costs, the LGA said that in the United Kingdom local governments shell out £1.50 ($1.92) to clean up a square meter of sidewalk, while the average piece of gum costs about 3 pence, or 6 cents.
Judith Blake, the LGA’s environmental spokesperson, called gum litter “ugly, unsightly and unacceptable.”
“At a time when councils face considerable ongoing funding pressures, this is a growing cost pressure they could do without,” she says. “Conventional chewing gum is not biodegradable and councils have to use specialist equipment to remove it, which is both time-consuming and very expensive. It is therefore reasonable to expect chewing gum manufacturers to help more, both by switching to biodegradable gum and by contributing to the cost of clearing it up.”
As Britain’s largest chewing gum manufacturer, Wrigley is a natural target. The company, which has its U.K. headquarters and a factory in Plymouth in southwest England, offers many of the same gum brands seen in the United States: Extra, Juicy Fruit, Doublemint, Wrigley’s Spearmint and Hubba Bubba.
Wrigley says it isn’t in a bubble when it comes to gum’s environmental impact, but its focus is transforming consumer behavior.
“We take the issue of gum litter seriously and recognize that behavior change is the only long-term, sustainable solution to dealing with all forms of litter,” the company said in a statement. “On the global level, we encourage behavior change through active support of community awareness campaigns, in-school education programs and clear on-pack labeling that motivates our consumers to dispose of gum properly.”
Wrigley is a member of the 14-year-old Chewing Gum Action Group, a consortium of food industry, environmental and governmental agencies. The group organizes outdoor advertising campaigns that encourages chewers to dispose of their gum responsibly.
In 2006, Wrigley created the “Bin It!” program, which has a team of actors visit schools to encourage environmental awareness and educate young people on responsible litter disposal.
What about this side of the Atlantic? Wrigley says it uses disposal logos on packaging and at point of sale to remind consumers to throw gum away instead of dropping it on the sidewalk or street. It also partners with the Foundation for Environmental Education on the multi-year “Litter Less” campaign, which encourages young people to, as the name suggests, litter less.
I’d bet no one in the United Kingdom or the United States likes scraping gum off their shoes or clothes, so any action to reduce gum litter is a good step forward. Certainly, further consumer education is necessary, and both gum manufacturers and environmental groups should continue to collaborate on campaigns.
Would contributing some amount to cleanup efforts kill gum manufacturers? Probably not, especially since it could serve as a selling point for environmentally-conscious consumers. But forking over millions of dollars isn’t feasible, and as the largest producer in the Britain, Wrigley would likely take the brunt of it.
Moving toward — or in some cases, back to — bio-degradable gum bases is the best bet. Some small producers such as Chicza, Glee Gum and Simply Gum use chicle, a natural gum base popular before chewing gum needed to be scaled up, but there’s no way large producers such as Wrigley could get enough to meet its demands.
Hopefully as technology improves, food scientists can develop synthetic gum bases that are bio-degradable. It’s the only way producers will be able to guiltlessly walk and chew gum at the same time.