It keeps us preoccupied in long meetings and helps to promote a fresh breath, but have you ever wondered about the environmental impact of chewing gum? Second to only cigarette butts, chewing gum is one of the world’s most common forms of litter. It isn’t what we commonly think of when we picture plastic pollution, but gum litter is a pretty serious problem, too.
Now you may be wondering, “is chewing gum biodegradable?” We’ll answer that and much more, and you can use the table of contents to explore all of the eco-concerns (and solutions) of one of our most popular confectionary treats.
So, is gum bad for the environment, or can gum be composted or recycled? We’ll share a bit of good news now: some types of biodegradable gum can be composted. You can toss them in your green bin or compost them at home using a Lomi smart composter! Unfortunately, the rest of the story with this common form of litter is pretty gloomy. Let’s look at the history of gum, why most gum is so bad for our planet, and how waste gum can become a sustainable resource.
The history of chewing gum
While it may seem like chewing gum is a modern creation, it’s been around much longer than you probably assume. Dating back to use with Mayan and Aztec cultures, humans have been chewing gum for hundreds of years in the Americas.
Historically, chewed gum was in the form of a resin extracted from the sapodilla tree, also known as Chicle. Found in regions of Central America, the sapodilla tree produces a tree sap. This works like a bandaid to cover any cuts the bark may endure—but it can also be used as one of our favorite sticky treats!
These early cultures would chew gum to suppress their thirst and appetites. But they weren’t even the first to have some form of chewed gum. Ancient Greeks chewed on a plant-derived substance, Scandanavians from thousands of years ago turned birch-bark tar into chewed gum, and Native Americans were known to chew gum made from spruce tree resin.
The history of chewing gum paints a picture of chewing gum made with tree sap and from the plants that grew around these populations. And in fact, up until World War II, chewing gum was derived from Chicle—Sapodilla tree sap. Modern gum manufacturers, on the other hand, use different gum ingredients.
What is gum made of?
Modern chewing gum differs from what was used traditionally because of its gum base. This is what gives gum its fun, bounce-back, chewy texture. Made up of three components, modern gum bases include a resin to make a chewable texture, a wax to make the gum softer, and an elastomer for added flexibility.
Throughout history, the gum base has evolved from tree resin to petroleum-derived paraffin wax. However, both of these lack the flexibility we know and love in bubble gum. So, modern mastication paved the way for synthetic plastics and synthetic rubbers to take the place of plant-based substances.
Then, gum manufacturers take steps to make gum taste good. To make the quintessential “bubble gum” flavor possible, this means adding artificial flavors and sweeteners that will last long, and get released slowly as the gum is chewed.
- Synthetic gum base: Seeing the words “gum base” on a bubble gum package could refer to 80 different synthetic ingredients, including both butyl rubber and polyvinyl acetate—which we’ll discuss below.
- Synthetic rubber: Instead of tree sap, conventional gum can be made with a synthetic rubber-like material, like polyisobutylene. This food-grade butyl rubber is mixed with plasticizers and other chemicals to make chewing gum, well, chewable.
- Synthetic plastics: In addition to synthetic rubbers, most gum may also be made with synthetic plastic. In fact, about 60% of gum bases are made with polyvinyl acetate, a synthetic polymer typically used in glue.
- Synthetic sweeteners: Making chewing gum taste good means that 85% of the products from chewing gum manufacturers are made with artificial sweeteners like acesulfame-k, aspartame, dihydrochalcone, neohesperidine, saccharine, and sucralose.
- Softeners: To prevent the chewing gum from getting hard over time, a softener, like vegetable oil or glycerine may be used to keep it bouncy.
- Artificial colors: Whether the gum is red, striped, or white, it’s likely been treated with dyes like Yellow 5 or Red 40 Lake.
- Artificial flavors: Derived from inedible substances like petroleum, artificial flavors are synthesized in labs and responsible for many flavors—from “bubble gum” to Cinnamint.
- Preservatives: BHT, or butylated hydroxytoluene, hasn’t been deemed a carcinogen in studies with lab rats, but is banned in other countries for its potential toxicity. It’s used to preserve the color and flavor of gum.
- Natural gum base: Instead of those that are synthetically derived, modern chewing gum may be made with a natural gum base, like natural latex, Chicle, candelilla wax, or beeswax.
- Natural sweeteners, flavors, and colors: Environmentally friendly chewing gum companies may use cane sugar, natural flavor, and fruit juice to sweeten, flavor, and color their gum.
- Medication: Some conventional gum brands even use medicinal ingredients, like tooth whiteners or calcium carbonate, which is used to relieve acid indigestion.
Chewing gum is made in many different ways using many different ingredients. As we’ll explore below, some of these ingredients are better because they won’t accumulate toxins in your body—or in the environment. So, let’s answer a few common questions you might have about that stick of chewing gum: does gum biodegrade; is gum compostable; and is there environmentally friendly chewing gum?
Is gum biodegradable? Does it decompose?
Considering that polyvinyl acetate (plastic) and other synthetic polymers make their way into conventional gum, you may be wondering if discarded gum will decompose. Generally speaking, used gum is not biodegradable and will not decompose—in a reasonable amount of time, that is.
However, it’s not all bad news. Some biodegradable gums exist that can be composted right at home. Did you know that Nuud gum for example, can be broken down in Lomi? Lomi is a smart home composter that can turn your food waste into natural fertilizer in less than 24 hours! And what’s even more cool is that it can also handle certain bioplastics and other approved items like biodegradable gum!
How long does it take for gum to decompose?
Most chewing gum is made with the same types of synthetic plastic and rubber that are used to make glue and tire tubes. READ: these materials are designed to withstand heavy-duty use for a long time. Like other plastics, gum litter can linger in our environment for anywhere from 5 to 1,000+ years.
Trade our environment for your digestive system, and you may now be wondering what happens when you accidentally swallow gum. Can you digest chewing gum?
Stomach acid and the actions of your digestive system will help to break down many of the components of chewing gum—flavors, softeners, sweeteners, and preservatives. However, they’re no match for the synthetic ingredients found in modern gum base.
Don’t be worried by thinking that they’ll linger in your stomach for years! The synthetic polymers will remain in your digestive system for up to seven days before being passed out through a bowel movement. However, swallow too much gum and you could end up with symptoms like constipation, abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea.
Can you compost gum?
Since the time for gum to decompose can take 1,000+ years, compostable chewing gum isn’t really a reality. Toss chewed gum into a compost bin and you’d likely get a sticky mess! However, biodegradable gum brands are making it easier to add chewing gum to the list of things that can be composted.
You can’t really compost chewing gum. Unfortunately, you can’t really recycle chewing gum, either. Although it's made of plastic, its sticky, messy nature makes it unappealing to recycling centers.
But gum waste is a big problem, so just what can be done with old chewing gum? Like cigarette butts and disposable coffee cups, simply discarding used gum on the ground is the worst way to dispose of it. Chewing ABC (“already been chewed”) gum may spread bacteria, too. That said, the best thing you can do with most chewing gum is to immediately toss it in the garbage can.
While that’s what should be done with most modern chewing gum, biodegradable gum companies are helping to tackle chewing gum waste by creating gum that isn’t as bad for the environment—and in some cases, can be composted!
4 best biodegradable gum brands you should switch to
If you don’t want to stop chewing gum, but you do want to put a stop to chewing gum litter, biodegradable chewing gum provides a solution. Made with natural ingredients, these biodegradable chewing gums are better for not just the environment, but your health, too. Let’s chew our way through some of the best of them.
1. Nuud Gum
Plant-based and sugar-free, Nuud has successfully made biodegradable chewing gum. They’ve turned back the clock by using the Chicle tree sap that was traditionally used by Central American cultures. Sustainably sourced from the Sapodilla tree, this natural gum base makes Nuud gum biodegradable.
2. Glee Gum
Woman-owned Glee Gum is another one of the chewing gum companies to turn to plants instead of petroleum. Their biodegradable chewing gum is made with sustainably harvested chicle and free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives.
Why we love this gum: The gum is packaged in biodegradable cellophane and recyclable cardboard. Glee Gum is Non-GMO Project Verified, too.
3. Simply Gum
For planet-friendly fresh breath, Simply is another brand to turn to. Unlike other gum bases, theirs is made with chicle, candelilla wax, and citric acid instead of plastic—making it biodegradable. Not only that, but the rest of the ingredients include recognizable things like organic raw cane sugar, organic vegetable glycerin, organic rice flour, and natural flavors.
Why we love this gum: In addition to making their chewing gum biodegradable, Simply is also Certified Vegan and Non-GMO Project Verified.
Chicza isn’t just one of the few biodegradable gum brands. It’s the only one that’s 100% certified organic. Their gum starts out as 100% Chicle that’s sustainably sourced through a partnership with Chicleros, native rainforest communities and guardians of the rainforest.
Why we love this gum: The organic gum base is combined with other organic ingredients, like evaporated cane juice, glucose, agave syrup, and organic flavor.
Try Lomi - a convenient way to compost at home
Until recently, compostable gum was nothing more than a dream. But Lomi is the convenient indoor electric composter that has turned our bubble gum dreams into eco-friendly realities. Not only can the Lomi turn kitchen scraps and leftovers into nutrient-rich dirt, but it can do the same for many non-food, Lomi-Approved products! In addition to compostable bags and utensils, this includes some biodegradable chewing gum.
Let’s face it. Gum pollution is a bigger problem than most of us would like to believe. We don’t all have the time or creative resources to turn our discarded gum into chewing gum recycling projects. So, we’re faced with two main options: stop chewing gum or throw it away as plastic garbage.
But as more than 85,000 households have already discovered, the Lomi is an excellent way to turn “waste” into “wealth.” In some cases, even chewing gum can be quickly processed by the electric countertop composter into natural fertilizer. Chew on that eco-friendly alternative to sticky gum litter.
Written by: Heather Seely