Donal Hickey: Taking on a sticky problem

It probably comes next to dog waste in the disgusting stakes — finding chewing gum stuck on the soles of your shoes or on your clothes. Despite many campaigns, people continue to spit out the gum leaving local authorities with the difficult task of removing it from footpaths and pavements. Last year, for instance, Cork City Council spent €40,000 dealing with the problem.

Next to cigarette butts and packaging, chewing gum is our second most common cause of litter. This is also the international experience. And the cost of removing a piece of gum can be at least three times the retail price of the same piece.

Not for the first time, young people are showing the way in highlighting the impact of our consumption behaviour on the environment. Many second-level schools took part in the EPA’s ‘The Story of Your Stuff’ competition to submit stories about the lifecycle of an everyday object, with an underlying theme of recycling and sustainability.

Entries focused on everything from wellies to wheels to toilet paper and the winners this year are Amber Pomeranz and Lauren Lehane, Presentation Secondary School, Milltown, Co Kerry. They teamed up to tell the story of chewing gum, from its history to how it’s currently manufactured and how innovative ways are being found to reduce its negative impact on the environment after use.

They discovered 374 trillion sticks of the sticky stuff are sold in the world each year. “Chewing gum is a problem, but it is solvable,’’ they say. Thousands of years ago, people chewed gum which they extracted from trees, but the first commercial development of the product is credited to one JB Curtis who put the State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum on the market, in America, in 1848.

Many urban areas with heavy pedestrian traffic have a high incidence of chewing gum discard. In Cork, removal has been focused on St Patrick’s Street, the Grand Parade and Oliver Plunkett Street. One of London’s busiest thoroughfares, Oxford Street, has been found to have 250,000 blobs of chewing gum stuck to its pavement.

The Singapore government once banned chewing gum because of the danger of discarded gum being wedged in the sliding doors of underground trains and general cleanliness. However, in 2004, the government allowed sugarless gum to be sold in pharmacies on medical prescription.

Earlier this year, British designer Anna Bullus came up with a method of collecting and recycling chewing gum into plastic, using a recycling plant. The end product is used to make plastic objects including shoe soles, rubber boots and plastic cups.

Some researchers have developed gum that is less sticky and breaks down quickly.

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