Many of us have had the unfortunate luck of stepping on gum. Going about your day when — smack! There goes the next 10 minutes as you desperately try to scrape the sticky substance off your soles in a fit of annoyance.
Turns out tossing your gum on the street is more than just an inconvenience. It’s an act of littering known as gum pollution.
“It is one of those pollutants that people often overlook,” research scientist Win Cowger said. Cowger completed his Ph.D. in Environmental Science Soil and Water last year and now works for the Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research in Long Beach, Calif.
He went on to say that gum and cigarette butts are two of the most deceptive pollutants.
“You wouldn’t overlook the same thing if they just took the trash and dumped it on the ground,” he said.
Beyond the cultural norm of throwing gum away and the sizable gum consumption in the U.S., half the environmental battle lies in the sheer makeup of chewing gum.
Remember the old wives’ tale that circulates middle schools every year warning kids not to swallow gum for fear of it staying in their digestive system for seven years? While countless medical groups have disproven that, one look at some of the ingredients that go into chewing gum explains how such a myth could arise.
Two ingredients common in chewing gum stand out as particularly difficult to break down — synthetic rubber, like that found in car tires, and polyvinyl acetate, a resin known to be used in glues including Elmer’s glue and carpentry glue.
That combination, among other sticky ingredients, doesn’t bode well for biodegrading, leaving a whole lot of sticky gum on the Earth’s surface.
Gum pollution is back under the microscope, moving from the streets to the baseball diamond courtesy of the New York Yankees.
Several players in the dugout were spotted throwing wads of chewing gum at a nearby sprinkler in a game that was compared to frisbee golf. While it was seemingly an act of boredom with little consequence, environmental experts share a concern for gum pollution.
“What happened at the baseball game is really problematic as it could encourage impressionable people who see that and think that littering is just fun and games,” Cowger said.
As for the gum shower at Yankee Stadium, that will be handled by the groundskeeping staff.
While some people, including YES Network announcer Michael Kay, were quick to express annoyance on behalf of the groundskeeping staff, Greg Elliott, head groundskeeper for the San Francisco Giants, said the cleanup effort is “not a big deal.”
“Everyone goes through it and it’s really no different than a player chewing a lot of sunflower seeds on the field,” Elliott said. “It’s just something you got to manage and maintain and make sure it doesn’t clog your mowers.”
While environmental activists and baseball fans debate the importance of gum, more and more people are teaming up to develop ways to reduce the footprint of gum pollution.
Gumdrop is a London-based company that converts recycled gum into products such as notebooks, pencils and frisbees. Most recently, they partnered with Adidas to provide their Stan Smith line with a sole made from recycled gum.
While gum remains a mainstay of baseball culture, don’t be surprised to hear of some pushback if the Yankees dugout game takes off.