Is Chewing Gum Biodegradable? A Look at Its Ingredients

Chewing gum contains some surprising ingredients everyone should know about.

Pink used chewing gum spit out on the pavement
Tunatura / Getty Images

Today, more people than ever before are looking at everyday products and asking—often for the first time—is this the most sustainable choice? Chewing gum is no exception. Have you ever wondered why gum seems to last forever and never breaks down in your mouth? Is chewing gum biodegradable? The answers might surprise you.

The History of Chewing Gum

While gum as we know it was developed during the 20th century, people have been chewing for pleasure for thousands of years. Ancient Europeans chewed birch bark for enjoyment and to relieve pain, while Indigenous communities of North America chewed spruce tree resin. In Central and South America, the ancient Mayans and Aztecs used a substance called chicle, which is derived from the sapodilla tree.

While tree resin is easy to find, its taste is less than delightful—and it falls apart fairly quickly. Chicle, however, actually cleans teeth and freshens breath; at the same time, it can be chewed for a much longer time without breaking down.

Modern gum was invented during the 1800s by an inventor named Thomas Adams who imported chicle from Mexico. Chicle was the main ingredient in most chewing gum for many years, Not surprisingly, as the American appetite for gum increased the availability of chicle decreased. Mexican farmers used unsustainable harvesting methods to increase chicle yields; by the 1930s, a quarter of Mexico's sapodilla trees were dead.

What Is Today's Chewing Gum Made Of? 

As chicle became less available and more expensive, gum manufacturers looked for new ingredients that would provide consumers with a long-lasting, satisfying chew. By the mid-1900s they had turned to paraffin wax and petroleum-based materials. The result: Gum that can be chewed almost forever without breaking down.

An Overview of Gum Ingredients

Modern chewing gum is made up of four groups of ingredients that give gum its distinction flavor, texture, and bounce:

  • Fillers, such as talc and calcium carbonate, bulk out the gum and give it satisfying heft.
  • Polymers give gum their stretch. These are polymers such as polyvinyl acetate, along with other materials that make up the "gum base."
  • Emulsifiers are chemicals that help mix flavors and colors and reduce stickiness.
  • Softeners, such as vegetable oil, are added to the gum base to keep it chewy rather than stiff.

Gum Base: A Trade Secret

Gum manufacturers are required to include ingredients on their labels; most, including major brands like Trident and Wrigley's, include a product called "gum base." The precise ingredients in "gum base" are a trade secret, but they may include any of 46 FDA-approved products including plastics, natural latex, synthetic rubber, wood glue, vegetable oil, and talc. The entire list of allowable additives is available on the FDA website.

In addition to a gum base, most chewing gum contains artificial colors, preservatives, and sugar (or an artificial sweetener, such as aspartame).

Is Gum Biodegradable?

Typical modern chewing gum includes plastics and is, therefore, not fully biodegradable. Evidence of this can be seen on sidewalks, desks, and streets, where blackened wads of gum remain almost unchanged for years. No one knows exactly how long the plastic in gum takes to biodegrade—but, for example, butyl rubber polymer, often used in gum, is also used to make rubber tires. And according to ExxonMobil, butyl rubber does not biodegrade.

At least one company, Gumdrop, is taking action to recycle chewing gum. According to their website, they are the first company to process chewing gum into new compounds that can be used in the rubber and plastics industry.

Environmental Consequences of Chewing Gum

The production and disposal of chewing gum create a range of environmental consequences that may seem trivial but add up to a significant problem.

  • Production. Many of the ingredients in chewing gum are made from petroleum, a fossil fuel. The extraction of petroleum is a major environmental issue as it contributes to water pollution, air pollution, and damage to land. The processing of petroleum products is another significant source of pollution.
  • Transportation. Transportation of fossil fuels and other chemicals involves shipping and trucking, both of which contribute to air pollution and climate change.
  • Litter. According to GetGreenNow, 80-90% of chewed gum is disposed of improperly; most is dropped on the ground or stuck onto a surface. This means that thousands of pounds of gum are entering the litter stream every year.
  • Impact on animals. Gum is often eaten by land and aquatic animals that mistake it for food. In some cases, the gum contains enough toxins including phthalates dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) to actually poison the animals; in other cases, the sticky wads of gum become stuck in their digestive systems.

Solutions

In recent years, quite a few companies have created less toxic, biodegradable chewing gum options. Some of the options include Simply Gum, Chicza, Glee Gum, and Chewsy. Meanwhile, of course, if you do chew Wrigleys, Trident, or other mainstream gums, your best solution is to carefully wrap and dispose of every stick of gum and help keep our sidewalks a little cleaner.