Britain's Very Sticky Problem

As authorities mull a tax to cover scraping cast-off chewing gum from sidewalks, the so-far fruitless quest for a biodegradable chew continues

By Beth Carney

It's been described by government officials as a "scourge" and a "blight" on Britain's streets that is burdening public servants and requiring constant vigilance to fight. The menace? Discarded chewing gum, which officials say is disfiguring sidewalks and costing the country the equivalent of $285 million a year to clean up.

"It's ugly. It leaves a nasty stain. It sticks to people's clothes and shoes," said Alan Bradley, member of London's Westminster Council, which surveyed local authorities around the country last year to come up with the total cost estimate. "It's a serious problem."

Indeed, the widespread nuisance of cast-off chewing gum is attracting increasing attention in the British Isles. This month, representatives from major cities around the Britain met in London for the first "gum summit" to talk about tackling the sticky mess. The local officials called for a penny-a-pack tax on gum to help offset the cleaning costs. The Irish government, meanwhile, is considering imposing an even steeper tax of 10% -- or about 5 cents -- per pack.


  Although gum litter has aroused sporadic complaints since the late 1990s, officials say the problem is getting worse. One possible reason: Gum is the fastest-growing segment in the confectionery market. According to the London-based Euromonitor International research firm, in the past five years worldwide gum sales have grown by 27%, while sales of candy grew 7%. In Britain during the period, gum sales grew 31%, to $728 million in 2004.

Current support for a "polluter pays" tax also comes at a time in Britain when the current mechanism for paying for local services such as street cleaning -- the council tax, which is levied on every home and has risen sharply in recent years -- has become hugely unpopular.

What distinguishes chewing-gum cleanup from other forms of litter removal is its expense, say government authorities. Local councils use a variety of methods to remove the gunk. These include special tools that target each piece of gum with a blast of chemical cleaner and machines that spray slabs of pavement with water at a high pressure. The intensity of the work requires that crews split streets into small segments, and the pace is painstaking. In Belfast, for example, it can take two years to clean one major thoroughfare, patch by patch.


  "It's a losing battle," said Jim Ferguson, operations manager for Belfast City Council. "Every piece is taken off individually. It's very laborious."

The only city in the world known to have effectively tackled the problem of gum litter is Singapore, which banned gum entirely for 10 years before allowing people to purchase gum for medical reasons in 2002.

While not a panacea, advocates of a gum tax in Britain and Ireland say the revenue -- or an equivalent contribution from the gum industry -- would at least defray removal costs. Equally importantly, they say such a move would pressure gum makers into stepping up efforts to invent a new kind of gum that would be easier to clean up.


  "It may focus the mind of industry into developing a product that is biodegradable or less adhesive," said Paris Beausang, of Ireland's Environment, Heritage, & Local Government Dept. "Ultimately, that is the problem: It sticks."

Why isn't a biodegradable gum already on the market? A widely cited British Parliamentary report in 2003 stated that Wrigley's (WWY ), which Euromonitor International says sells 85% of Britain's gum, had spent $9.5 million on research into developing biodegradable gum -- without success. Wrigley's would not confirm the budget figure, but said in a statement that its investment in developing a nonadhesive or biodegradable gum "has accelerated in the last few years." But no product is expected to come on the market soon.

Concocting a nonstick or biodegradable gum isn't easy, notes Peter Olmsted, a specialist in the physics of complex fluids at Leeds University. Chewing gum is essentially a flavored, synthetic rubber. It's made of polymers, which are very long molecules. The polymers give gum its texture, making it stretchy and pleasant to chew. But the same polymers also make gum sticky. Even worse for the cleaning crews, the polymers in gum have a particular affinity with the polymers in asphalt.


  "Basically, all the properties that make it gum make it really difficult to remove," says Olmsted. For example, an easy path to a biodegradable gum would be to make one that dissolves in water. Trouble is, such a substance would not withstand chewing.

The gum industry says changing public behavior about littering is the best approach. The Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate, & Confectionery Assn., which represents Wrigley's and other gum makers, is part of a chewing-gum task force, set up by the British government, that will be launching a public awareness campaign this year.

Along with the advertising campaign, the task force is also considering promoting "gum pouches," which would hold chewed gum until it can be thrown into a trash bin -- potentially useful in Britain, where most gum is sold in tablet form, without individual wrappers. Local officials are also calling for bigger gum-package labels encouraging people to dispose of gum properly.


  But any group trying to change public opinion faces a challenge. In preparation for the awareness campaign, the Environment & Rural Affairs Dept., commissioned a $115,000 research report on chewers' attitudes, published in November. Based on focus groups, it identified different types of "gum droppers," from the "excuses, excuses" segment, who felt guilty about littering gum and did so discreetly, to the "bravado" group, who enjoyed tossing their gum and then kicking it. One finding dispiriting to the antigum campaigners: Every one of the 1,000 people interviewed admitted dropping gum at least occasionally.

On the plus side, advocates say, the number of people affected by the problem is also widespread. "It's a cross-party issue," said Richard Stokoe, spokesman for the London Assembly's Liberal Democrats, which have been active on the issue. "Once you start noticing all the little white dots on the floor, you notice them everywhere." In political terms, that makes it one sticky issue.

Carney is a correspondent for BusinessWeek Online in London

Edited by Phil Mintz

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