Environment

Gum Control

One man’s quest to steam-blast the world’s stickiest litter problem

Illustration by Brandon Celi

Illustration by Brandon Celi

Andrew Meades has a recurring daydream. In it, the twenty-nine-year-old is walking down Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. Neon-pink receptacles—marked with clear how-to instructions and never more than thirty feet apart—hang from street poles lining the sidewalk. Banners fly overhead, but instead of telling passersby to shop or eat or see a play, they say “Bin It Your Way.” Beneath his feet—and this is the important part—is nothing. He’s rendered his six-year-old business obsolete. And it’s bliss.

Meades cleans chewing gum off of city sidewalks for a living. He’s the founder of a company called GTA Gum Removal, though these days only a small percentage of the business actually involves removing gum. (The rest is everyday commercial cleaning: graffiti removal, pressure washing, etc.). Gum is important to Meades for two reasons. First, he’s a problem solver, nowhere more electric than in his garage surrounded by heavy machinery, steam rising from the cleaners in his workshop. It’s a thrill to find something other people can’t fix, and fix it.

Which leads us to the second reason: for urban centres, little sticks of gum are a big problem.

In 2014 the city of Toronto completed a litter audit, and the largest source of small trash by far was gum.

A third of the garbage documented was of the already-been-chewed variety, beating out cigarette butts, candy wrappers, and food waste. Vancouver’s litter audit only counts what’s in landfills, not on sidewalks, but there’s enough gum trash that the city is launching a pilot project for gum disposal later this summer. Filmmaker Andrew Nisker, partnering with a Toronto digital mapping company called Esri, calculated how much gum coats the streets of Toronto today. Their estimate? More than 719 million wads, weighing almost 2,000 tonnes.

Scraping that much waste off the streets is a worthy challenge, and Meades is working on it. But he’s only dealing with one side of the equation. As every problem solver like Meades knows, there are two ways to fight an epidemic. You can battle the symptoms, or you can kill the disease.

Modern chewing gum is sticky; enough that, after mixing with saliva, it can grip a telephone pole on its own strength. It’s hydrophobic so it doesn’t dissolve in your mouth, which means it also won’t decompose in the ground. Whether in its minty, fruity, or spicy incarnations, it’s a petroleum-based polymer glazed with oil and coated in molten confectionary—candy-coated plastic.

That chemical makeup has been spectacularly successful for Big Gum, an industry estimated to be worth (US) $19 billion and dominated almost entirely by Wrigley and Mondelez, the corporate entity which owns Cadbury. Still, gum manufacturers aren’t deaf to environmental realities, thanks to movements around the world, from a gum ban in Singapore to persistent cage-rattling in the United Kingdom. As such, more than twenty years ago, gum companies began the race for a formula that would chew just as well as the polymer we’ve come to know, but would also biodegrade.

Since the late 1990s, there have been dozens of patents filed, some from Wrigley or Cadbury, others from independent scientists. Wrigley has reportedly spent more than $10 million looking for an environmentally-friendly solution. The first company to introduce a tasty and affordable biodegradable gum to market, the thinking went, could be set for a windfall in public relations and profit.

In 2006, Wilhelm Risse, a world leader in polymer science at the University College Dublin, was hired by Wrigley to develop the future of gum polymers: that is, plastic with a less permanent future. (Polymers form the basis for products from car bumpers to fishing line to disposable cups. The polymers that make up modern gum, though, are almost entirely petroleum-based: we’re essentially chewing oil.) The goal for Risse’s team was to create a new “gum base.” The gum polymer had to remain hydrophobic, or water-repellant, so it wouldn’t dissolve when chewed, but also had to be hydrophilic, so it could break down in the ground—a candy-coated Everest.

Risse’s team wasn’t alone. Wrigley also contracted University of Minnesota chemist Marc Hillmyer, another leading polymer expert, in 2007 to help solve the gum problem. The exact specifications he was working to is proprietary information, but Hillmyer, himself a gum chewer, says, “Whatever it is you like about chewing gum, our material had to be the same. It has a springiness, a literal mouthfeel.”

Hillmyer and his staff of thirty were operating under the impression that the project was a priority for Wrigley. The research push began shortly after governments and citizens, particularly in the UK were starting to ask why Big Gum wasn’t footing the bill for million-dollar city-street cleanup costs. Newspapers ran editorials; city councils held meetings. “Gum manufacturers were experiencing serious pressure,” Hillmyer says. The team in Minnesota made a polymer. After six years of work, in 2013, they submitted it to Wrigley. And then the gum company went quiet.

Candy manufacturers are literal happiness factories, so Big Gum conglomerates have the benefit of built-in positive PR. But Andrew Nisker, whose 2015 Canadian film Dark Side of the Chew investigates the environmental impact of chewing gum, describes the confectionary kingpins as “cloak-and-dagger.” Mondelez didn’t return repeated requests for comment on this story. Wrigley did. After months of back-and-forth about an interview, I received an email saying that the launch of a biodegradable gum was “off the table.” I asked if that was a condition for our conversation, or a statement on the status of the project.

“Both.”

Gum hasn’t always been garbage. The world’s oldest known piece of chewing gum originates in Finland, where Neolithic men chewed melted birch bark around the fire more than 5,000 years ago. In Mexico, the Aztecs and Mayans harvested chicle from the rainforest’s Sapodilla trees—natural, organic, biodegradable. In the early twentieth century, Mexican chicle became a valuable commodity as Americans developed their own affinity for the sweet stuff. Chicleros would drain the tree of sap and process it right in the forest. Between the wars, chicle became a staple of American life. During the Second World War, 150 billion sticks of gum were sent overseas to satiate soldiers.

Demand soon outpaced supply, and Sapodilla trees needed rest between harvests. After the war, American chewing gum companies quietly pulled resources out of Mexico and poured them into petrochemicals. Gum waste quickly became a problem. In 1966, John Lindsay, mayor of New York City, hiked litter fines to combat the scourge. The move was largely ineffective. “Gum pollution is such a quick crime,” Andrew Meades says. “In all my years I’ve only caught maybe one and a half people, and I’m watching.”

“Juicy Fruit,” Meades calls out as he steam-cleans sections of Toronto sidewalk. Ostensibly he’s talking to his brother, Peter, just a few metres away, but it’s a habit. The pair shuffles along, dragging machines that look like knock-offs of Star Wars’ R2-D2 behind them. When they hit a caked-on-stain with 170°C steam, remnants of the gum’s more honourable past are reanimated, mint or fruit flavours rising from the sidewalk. “You can almost taste it.”

Off the streets, the two talk business. Making money in gum is hard, and the Meades’s company has shifted toward conventional commercial cleaning, sacrificing the dream for a dollar. “It’s painful to talk about sometimes, because I’ve gotten away from it,” Andrew says. “But this is my passion. I’m going to solve this problem.”

Andrew, the younger Meades, first seriously considered the gum question in 2010. He read about two men in Montreal trying to rid the city of its own epidemic, and he glommed on to the idea. GTA Gum Removal’s first job was in June of that year, and interest grew quickly—two guys blowing steam onto the sidewalk will do that. A city councillor took notice; CityNews dropped by. The Harbourfront Centre was their first big job. But wiping up gum is expensive and labour intensive. All told, it costs Meades almost thirty-cents per stick, and the only way to clean it is the same way we chew it—one wad at a time. The cost is prohibitive for most businesses, which consider the substance to be more bother than burden. Across England, it’s estimated that more than $100 million is spent annually cleaning gum off the streets. One of Meades’s clients is the Hudson’s Bay Centre at Yonge and Bloor Streets. On that stretch of pavement alone there are fifty-two new gum stains each day.

These days, when a client wants their sidewalks cleaned during business hours, the Meades use steam-carts to navigate busy walkways. The detergent-infused water blasts the gum, and a vacuum sucks it up. For most jobs, though, they use commercial pressure-washers: the smaller carts often break, and take too long. The pressure-washers are considerably worse for water, powering through eight gallons a minute. Jobs can take hours.

The solution, then, is not steam-powered—it’s altering human behaviour. People don’t think about their discarded wad of saliva-infused plastic once it leaves their fingertips, but Andrew knows how to fix that. He can recite gum initiatives the world over. You need to educate: signs and advertisements. Garbage bins, he says, have to be regular and predictable, clean and well-marked. Critically, people need to believe in the cause. And that can only happen when the streets are clean. It’s the broken-windows approach to gum policing. These days, litter is a bygone issue, displaced by conversations about greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability. The Meades brothers are waging a battle with faulty tools against a well-funded enemy everyone loves in a war no one knows exists.

It helps to stay positive.

A mass-produced biodegradable gum, according to Hillmyer, is a three-legged stool. The first leg is taste: spearmint has to taste like spearmint. The second is chew: it has to be indistinguishable from its plastic alternatives. The third, and perhaps the hardest to overcome, is price: it has to cost the same to manufacture and to buy. If one of those legs is knocked out, the whole endeavour falls apart.

Researchers agree the simplest answer is probably the correct one: launching a biodegradable gum won’t be profitable for Big Gum, so it has abandoned the project. “You’d like to think it’s top priority,” Dublin researcher Susan Kelleher says. “But until they tax it, or people stop buying chewing gum, at the end of the day it’s business.” Peter Meades sees it the same way. “They’d be solving a problem they don’t have. This issue isn’t affecting their bottom line.” In the UK pressure from local governments has forced industry partnership in a Gum Litter Taskforce. But the manufacturers weren’t made to pay the hefty cleaning price tags from years past.

Andrew Meades’s vision is a more holistic one. He needs everyone on board: government, industry, and chewers all over the world. Meades wants to work with Wrigley, as well as Canadian cities, none of which currently have a strategy for dealing with gum waste. His plan focuses on awareness, that ephemeral good-cause catchall. If the customers care, he thinks, so will the money-makers. He’s not ruling anything out, from more aggressive signage, to his brother Peter running around Yonge and Dundas Square in a pink-blob suit. Without a biodegradable solution, this is the future of the gum problem. And Meades can’t wait to solve it.

Nathaniel Basen (@NathanielBasen) has written for This and Spacing.

Brandon Celi paints for the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Vice.

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