Hidden plastic: Chewing Gum and cigarette butts

Environtmental Issue Littering Plastic Pollution

While some plastics are easily recognizable (plastic bottles, straws etc), others, such as chewing gum and cigarette butts, are not, and sadly because of this, they are causing enormous environmental damage are they are easily littered.

Littering nightmare

The gum market is worth about $5 billion, and with around 374 billion pieces of gum produced each year, the small amount of plastic found in these products, makes a big impact on our environment.

As a not water-soluble little ball of micro-plastics, when gum gets littered it will slowly break into smaller particles that will eventually find their way in drains that will then filter into the ocean.

Unfortunately, same goes with cigarette butts which are the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world with about 4.5 trillion individual butts polluting our global environment! Filters, or cigarette butts, can take up to 10 years to completely degrade, while the chemicals they release can remain in the environment for many more years beyond the life of the cigarette butt itself.

Filters don’t just cause damage to marine life once they reach waterways, there are also many reports of young children and pet dogs accidentally swallowing cigarette butts found on the ground, and they’ve even been found ingested by wild animals, as well as seabirds and turtles.

plastic pollution

What are they actually made of?

Chewing Gum:

According to a study commissioned by a major Uk supermarket, 85% of the 2,000 people surveyed, had no idea there was plastic in gum. 

Gum was originally made using natural ingredients, such as sapodilla tree, sorva, jelutong, beeswax or paraffin wax, but after World War II chemists started making gum out of synthetic rubber (polyvinyl acetate) and masking this new synthetic flavor with sweeteners, flavorings, and softeners made of a host of other food-like ingredients. 

Those who have taken the time to read the ingredients in their chewing gum may not remember ‘plastic’ being listed, but since manufacturers don’t have to disclose which products they use and in which quantities, plastics are usually just listed as “gum base”. This particular “ingredient” in many brands is the one that contains plastic, and in most formula’s is the result of a mix of different chemicals including rubbers and waxes, which all contribute to giving gum its chewiness.

chewing gum

Some of these plastics, Polyethylene for example, can also be found in plastic bags, children’s toys and even bike tires, while polyvinyl acetate is used in glue.

Although gum is considered edible, it should never be ingested, not because swallowed gum sticks to your guts and stays in your system for years as a childhood myth wanted you to believe, but because our body is not able to digest these plastics. What this means is that if you do end up swallowing your gum, it will end up coming out of your body virtually the same way it went in. Keep In mind though that if you do make a habit of swallowing your gum, too much can result in intestinal blockages or stones that can wreak havoc on your system. 

Cigarette butts:

When filters were first introduced to cigarettes, tobacco companies tried making them in a variety of different materials including cotton, charcoal, and food starch, but eventually decided on a plastic fiber called cellulose acetate. This plastic, which to this day remains the polymer of choice, is also accompanied by nicotine, heavy metals, and different other chemicals, all of which leak out into the environment when they are littered. 

These lingering toxins include arsenic (which is also used in rat poisoning), and lead (a poison that can affect the brain development of children).

Cigarette butts

Silver lining

Chewing Gum:

Luckily with more awareness surrounding plastic pollution and the danger of micro-plastics, more and more brands are stepping up to change their formulas, and even though some are ditching plastics such as polyvinyl acetate for far worse options such as petroleum, polyethylene or even latex (so learn to read labels and get informed), others are actually going back natural. Therefore, if you absolutely can’t ditch the habit of chewing gum, search for brands that have switched to a “gum base” made using vegetable glycerine, raw sugar, organic rice flour, and natural flavoring. 

Remember though that even if you make the switch to a non-plastic chewing gum, it’s still not ok to litter them all over the place. Once you’re done, wrap it up in a random piece of paper, and dispose of them in the correct bin.

Cigarette butts:

The problem with cigarette filters is that “flicking” them at the end of a smoke is still largely accepted, probably because many people are completely unaware of the amount of damage they are causing.

You may think that e-cigarettes may be the perfect solution to this problem, but actually they have only made the situation worse, as their mix of electronic components, plastic and nicotine also puts them in a grey area, meaning that we would be dealing with a different form of the same thing. In other words, they may not get littered in the street, but we still have a problem in correctly disposing of them.

So what can be done?

As forbidding smoking all together is a pretty impossible solution, smokers should consider finding designated smoking areas or carrying their own “pocket ashtrays” to collect their waste. They should also encourage cities and public spaces to make more filter collectors available to them.

Sadly though until “flicking” remains an acceptable form of littering not much will change, so if awareness is raised and attention is brought to cigarette butts, for example in the same way the problem with single-use plastic straws was raised, things will start to change.

Find out what more you can do to raise awareness and stop this being the norm, in this video: 

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