Mexico City's Singularly Sticky Litter Problem

While Mexico City doesn't have a designated gum wall like Seattle, there are a few unfortunate trees around town that fill a similar role. . (Photo: Kevin Hutchison/flickr)

The next time your foot lands on a gnarly wad of chewing gum, feel free to direct your curses at Antonio López de Santa Anna.

It was in the 1860s that the (in)famous Mexican statesman introduced chicle — an all-purpose, all-natural tree gum — to inventor Thomas Adams while living in exile in the United States. Adams initially envisioned using the glutinous substance as a rubber substitute for tires. That didn’t pan out so he cut the gum into strips and marketed it as a newfangled product meant for human masticating.

In 1871, the first mass-produced chewing gum, Adams New York Chewing Gum, debuted. And the world has been merrily gnawing on flavored lumps of chicle — mostly synthetic chicle from the 1960s onward — ever since.

Mexico, in particular, continues to chew with exceptional fervor and trails behind the U.S. as the world’s second largest consumer of gum. In 2009, it was estimated Mexicans chewed an average of 2.6 pounds of gum per year.

This isn’t surprising. Before beloved Mexican brands like Canel’s, Motitas and Adams Bubbaloo came along, early Mesoamerican cultures chewed chicle with a zeal only matched by shopping mall-prowling 1980s Valley girls. It’s been around forever. And in an area of the world with such deep ties to the stuff, there’s also bound to be chewing gum-related woes.

Sticky business

Nowhere knows this better than Mexico City, a city at war with improperly discarded gum.

As detailed in the Guardian, removing globs of chewing gum from city sidewalks, statues and plazas is a specialized task in the Mexican capital — an otherwise beautiful city that happens to be covered with tutti-frutti litter. Distinct from other sanitation workers, chewing gum-busters are deployed overnight, armed with heavy-duty dry vapor steam guns called Terminators.

A recent gum-cleaning mission on the entire length of Francisco I. Madero Avenue — a heavily trafficked historic pedestrian street in the city center — required a team of 15 people working eight-hour shifts over three nights to get the job done. When complete, roughly 11,000 pieces of gum had been removed from the street.

“It gets boring,” said one gum remover, who, like many of her co-workers, commutes a long distance from the outskirts of the city to spend the night scanning for and eradicating wayward bubble gum from the urban landscape.

Despite the monotonous nature of the work, Jesús González Shmal, a politician currently heading Mexico City’s historic center city authority, believes that contemporary gum cleaners have it good compared to their predecessors. He tells the Guardian: “The cleaning staff had to literally get down on their knees and pick each gum off using a spatula and gasoline.”

Gum discarded on sidewalk
Like cigarette butts, chewed-up gum is a ubiquitous and non-biodegradable form of litter. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/flickr)

Brightly colored blight

Removal technique aside, there’s hope among Mexico City officials that scouring gum from the streets won’t need to be as regular — or as expensive — if residents and visitors alike take heed of an upcoming public awareness campaign discouraging gum littering.

Not only is discarded chewing gum an urban irritant and particularly grubby form of visual pollution, it’s also a health risk. As Rosa Isela Martinez, manager of the gum disposal awareness campaign, tells the Guardian, over 40,000 different kinds of bacteria including salmonella and E. coli have been found in Mexico City street gum. And, of course, there’s the danger that errant chewing gum presents to wildlife, particularly birds, which are apt to ingest colorful, sticky deposits and choke.

Chewing gum is the second-most littered item in the world (cigarette butts are first) with an estimated 80 to 90 percent of post-chew gum failing to find its way into trash bins. Even then, most commercially available chewing gum is made from the synthetic polymer polyisobutylene and takes eons to biodegrade.

Manufacturing traditional chewing gum in Mexico
While production of traditional tree resin-based chewing gum has gained traction due to the organic foods craze, the synthetic stuff still rules the Mexican chewing gum market. (Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)

Taxes, swallowing and a push toward natural alternatives

Mexico City’s war on gum isn’t new.

Noting that the average square meter of sidewalk in Mexico City has 70 globs of chewing gum on it, the Associated Press reported in 2009 that city conservation director Ricardo Jaral was floating the idea of an anti-gum litter campaign that suggested swallowing gum if chewers were unable to dispose of it in a trash receptacle.

A kindred spirit to Sean Spicer, Jaral dismissed any health-related concerns related to swallowing gum, telling the AP that “I've always swallowed my gum, and it's never done me any harm.”

In addition to promoting swallowing and investing in the steam cleaners that are now in use on Mexico City’s streets, Jaral also has sung the praises of all-natural and organic chicle gum — the same stuff that an exiled Antonio López de Santa Anna chomped on to de-stress — although the Mexican gum market is particularly competitive with not much room for a homegrown niche brand that's biodegradable.

In 2012, congressman Juan Manuel Diez Francos proposed a nationwide 50 percent chewing gum tax to discourage gum-based litter, which costs three times more to clean up than it does to buy in Mexico according to a report from NOVA. “It's not fair for us to be subsidizing this kind of pollution,” explained Diez Francos. “I know it's not very popular for a congressman to propose taxes but my first priority is Mexico.”

Funds raised through the “polluter pays”-style tax would be used to help gum litter prevention and cleanup efforts and purchase more fancy sidewalk steam cleaners.

Another solution, an outright Singapore-style ban on gum, would obviously never fly in Mexico. Even though they hate stepping in it, Mexicans love chewing it far too much for a measure that drastic to be considered. It's part of their national heritage.

For a city where so much gum is chewed and improperly discarded, one might be inclined to think that Mexico City is home to a foul yet tourist-friendly monument in the same vein as the Gum Wall at Pike Place Market in Seattle. While there’s nothing quite that impressively disgusting, visitors should keep their eyes peeled for urban trees that have found themselves in a truly sticky situation.