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Nonstick Chewing Gum

A U.K.-based company is set to launch a new kind of chewing gum that’s easy to wash off any surface.
October 5, 2007

Most everyone has had the displeasure of stepping on chewing gum in a parking lot. Cleaning up the sticky mess might become easier, thanks to a new gum created by U.K.-based Revolymer. The gum easily comes off roads, shoes, and hair, and it barely sticks at all to some surfaces.

Gum shoe: Traditional chewing gum (above) can leave behind a sticky mess.

The company has conducted extensive trials on the ease of cleaning up the gum and has done independent taste tests. Revolymer’s CEO, Roger Pettman, says that the company is now looking to get a U.S. Food and Drug Administration safety affirmation. If all goes as planned, Revolymer will launch the gum in three different flavors–mint, fruit, and lemon–next year.

About 600,000 metric tons of chewing gum are manufactured in the world every year, Pettman says. A large percent of that ends up on streets and pavements, becoming a pollution issue. “There is no great way to remove it,” says Pettman. Every year, London spends an estimated two million pounds, or more than four million dollars, to clean gum from subway trains and stations, according to a 2005 report by the London city council. The United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has launched a national campaign to tackle gum litter, while Singapore has enacted the famous chewing-gum ban.

Revolymer’s product has a formulation unlike most commercially available brands. The main ingredient in most chewing gums is a gum base: a mix of synthetic petroleum-derived polymers, natural latex, resins, and waxes. All of these components are hydrophobic–they stay away from water–which means that they are oil loving, says Pettman. This is the reason that gum traditionally sticks to the grease and grime on sidewalks. The Revolymer gum base has polymers with a hydrophobic part that’s wrapped inside a hydrophilic, or water-attracting, part. So even though the gum sticks to a surface, a film of water can form around it so that it easily washes away with water.

The new gum performed well in tests. When Revolymer researchers stuck it on sidewalks in U.K. towns, rainwater or street cleaning would wash it off within 24 hours. Most commercial gums, on the other hand, remained stuck and were difficult to remove. Tests also showed that when the new gum was stirred into water, it disintegrated completely in eight weeks, which means it could degrade once it goes into a drain.

The gum also did well in blind taste tests, Pettman says, with testers saying that it tasted just as good as leading brands. The texture, though, is slightly softer, he says, because the hydrophilic polymer interacts with saliva.

So far, no other company has developed a nonsticky, degradable chewing gum. Soo-Yeun Lee, a food-science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has developed a natural, biodegradable chewing gum that uses corn proteins instead of synthetic polymers. Her work was published in 2004 but is not ongoing.

Lee says that leading gum manufacturer Wrigley has a patent on a similar corn-based gum. According to the London city-council report, Wrigley has spent more than $10 million on research to find a biodegradable product but has yet to report success.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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