Any guess on what the most stubborn and pervasive pollutant of the urban environment might be? It affects 94% of shopping centres, 71% of train stations – it is chewing gum. As a UK population, we spit out 3.5 billion spent sticks of gum a year. In busier parts of London there are an average 20 trodden-in gobbets on every paving stone, a grand 300,000 of them on Oxford Street*.
Chewing gum is not biodegradable. Made from synthetic rubber, it is sticky, durable, and practically indestructible. It wasn’t always synthetic. When it was first invented in the 1870s it was made from chicle, the resin of the Mexican sapodilla tree. If it were still made from chicle, all those blobs on Oxford Street could be swept away as dust by the council cleaners, instead of being frozen, scraped and blasted with water jets.
Which means I was interested to discover that a Mexican chicle harvesters co-operative have recently launched their own brand of chewing gum, made the way it used to be. Chicza Rainforest Gum is the world’s first organic and biodegradable gum, and it will be sold through Waitrose early this year.
It’s only a little thing really, but it’s the kind of idea we love at make wealth history. It will provide jobs in Mexico, allowing a beleaguered local chicleros to continue providing for their families. The Mexican rainforest benefits too, because chicle is harvested from living trees, so the forest will be protected and carefully managed. At the same time, UK councils will have to spend just a fraction less on cleaning up our pavements. It’s a great example of innovative sustainable business, combining economic development and rainforest conservation, and I can’t wait to try a piece.
Unfortunately world gum consumption is so huge that the Mexican rainforest would never be able to meet chicle demand, so synthetic gum will continue to dominate the market. But, if consumers respond well, it will only be a matter of time before Wrigleys produce a biodegradable gum of their own.
Update: Want more on Chicza? Check out our exclusive audio documentary here.
*All figures from Richard Girling’s book Rubbish.