With the advent of shampoo bars , refillable beauty buys and metal straws, it's easier now to make small but incremental inroads into our everyday plastic use. But have you ever considered by chewing on gum, you could be contributing to plastic waste more than you realise?
“Chewing gum contains polyethene, the same plastic found in carrier bags and water bottles and may release harmful toxins into your bloodstream,” says Keir Carnie, founder of plastic-free chewing gum brand Nuud, who appeared on the BBC's Dragon’s Den in July 2021. He asked for a £50,000 investment but none of the Dragons took the bait, worried that big brands would start going plastic-free and take over Nuud’s niche. Keir had the last laugh though, Nuud plastic-free chewing gum, £1.50, is now sold in Waitrose, Nisa and Costcutter.
Plastic is added to chewing gum to make it chewy. On the ingredients list, it's hidden under the term ‘gum base’, Keir tells us. “Every piece of regular chewing gum contains the same amount of plastic as a plastic straw,” he claims.
With eight out of ten of us trying to reduce our plastic waste, according to a survey by pollution campaign group City to Sea , it’s no surprise we’re seeing the rise of plastic-free chewing gum. It's made using tree sap called chicle rather than polyethene, which early chewing gums were also made of. Chicle keeps your gum chewy but is also biodegradable.
It might seem easier to just abandon chewing gum rather than looking for sustainable alternatives, but dentists say that chewing gum is good for our teeth. Dr Uchenna Okoye of the London Smiling Dental Practice told us "chewing gum helps us produce saliva, which has mineral salts to help repair the teeth." Many gums also contain the sweetener xylitol, which has been shown to neutralise the acid that causes plaque thereby reducing dental decay. Uchenna advises only chewing it until the flavour has disappeared though, otherwise, you could be causing tension in your jaw muscles.
One of the key reasons that not all brands are converting to being totally plastic-free just yet is that removing plastic can affect the taste and feel.
"We did investigate, pioneer, and produce a plastic-free gum a number of years ago but it affected taste, experience and customer happiness so much so that we reverted back to including some level of man-made ingredients. Most gum brands are 80 per cent plastic and we can't confirm our exact figure as it is confidential, we can confirm that our ‘gum base’ which also includes natural ingredients is significantly, much less than that," says a brand manager from gum brand Peppersmith, which is sold in health food shops such as Planet Organic and Holland and Barrett and uses natural flavours, only xylitol to sweeten and comes in plastic-free packaging. "We know as a brand we are not perfect - and this is a subject we are continually looking to challenge...Fundamentally our gum is not able to sit in the plastic-free, 100 per cent biodegradable category just yet, but we’re working on it.
Dragon's Den investor Deborah Meaden predicted on the show that big brands would catch onto plastic-free chewing gum in the near future. It will be interesting to see if Wrigley's and the like will follow suit at least on packaging with cardboard rather than foil sleeves.
We tried plastic-free chewing gums to see how they compared to normal gum. We found them, in general, a little softer and less 'bouncy' but as with so many eco swaps, it's a case of doing things a little differently.