Erasing gum litter – one chew at a time

Chewing gum may be one of the world’s favourite habits, but it wreaks havoc on the environment. Dr Ashlee Jahnke, head of research and development at biodegradable biopolymer platform developer Teysha Technologies, is helping unwrap much greener solutions.

The history of chewing gum spans millennia.

More than 3000 years ago, ancient Greek philosophers mentioned chewing gum made from the natural resin of the Mastic Tree. Scandinavians munched on birch-bark tar, while Native Americans favoured resin from spruce trees.

Its popular origins, however, lie in South America where the Mayans and Aztecs harvested resin called chicle from the sapodilla tree. This practice eventually made its way to North America over a century ago.

Unfortunately, unsustainable harvesting practices led to the sapodilla’s decline, and synthetic gum bases took its place. One of the most common is polyvinyl acetate, also known as PVA. Beyond its use in gum, PVA is a key ingredient in glues, adhesives and stone consolidation. PVA is non-degradable, a petroleum derivative and makes up to 60 percent of the final gum formulation, contributing to the persistent effects of chewing gum litter.

Tackling the crisis

Chewing gum is a global environmental concern, contributing to approximately 105 tonnes of plastic rubbish annually due to its adhesive properties. According to DEFRA, the annual cleanup is estimated to cost the British taxpayer £7 million. Even worse, nearly 87 per cent of all streets in Britain bear unsightly gum stains.

Despite recent efforts, including a £10 million investment by gum manufacturers to ease the problem, the root cause remains unaddressed: Why aren’t gums designed to be biodegradable?

Our approach to tackling the problem revolves around harnessing natural monomers derived from plant feedstocks to create a diverse array of biopolymers. These monomers, including sugars and other natural products sourced from plants and agricultural waste products, are reacted with renewable carbonylation agents found in common engineering materials.

This combination creates polycarbonates, and through various modifications, the end products can be tailored to suit individual requirements.

The technology can be leveraged to produce robust, rigid materials suitable for construction applications, as well as flexible, pliable materials crafted for cutting-edge technologies. Furthermore, the principles can be applied to make the development of an engineered, biodegradable biopolymer – produced specifically to meet the needs of chewing gum fans – an attainable goal.

Like any potentially groundbreaking innovation, there are challenges. For example, the recipe for chewing gums is a closely held secret, complicating the development of new concepts. Regardless, our focus revolves around the modification of our biopolymer’s composition and manufacturing processes. Through these adjustments, we are dedicated to ensuring that our formulation remains not only safe for human consumption, but also retains the beloved elastic characteristics of popular chewing gum bases.

In addition to safety and elasticity, it must also match or improve the texture, consistency and mouth feel of existing gum products. Naturally, our polymer must also be degradable. It’s worth noting that this aspect plays to our advantage; modern gums are not renowned for their long-lasting flavour.

Despite the inevitable challenges and hurdles, the benefits of biodegradable gum are indisputable. Biodegradable gums offer a solution to the environmental problems caused by traditional synthetic gums. They will be naturally sourced from plants cultivated worldwide, significantly reducing waste accumulation, as well as erasing gum-based litter.

The resulting polymer would have a neutral taste, but the potential for long-lasting flavour. And through chemical modification of the polymer backbone, we can create chewing gum with an exceptionally enduring taste by releasing flavour gradually as the polymer begins to break down during chewing. Many biodegradable chewing gums exist, but Teysha’s differentiating factor lies in its adaptable biopolymer composition.

The flexibility of our patented technology means the gum is not limited to the properties of a natural polymer, but can be fine-tuned to meet the quality standards of premium chewing gum, including texture, longevity and elasticity.

This adaptability mirrors the diversity of non-biodegradable chewing gums. There are countless gum varieties tailored for specific purposes, from bubble blowing to extended flavour retention, and even medicinal delivery. Our technology can achieve all these variations while incorporating the crucial benefit of biodegradability.

It is time to demand biodegradable alternatives and champion innovations in gum chewing technology. Together we can make a meaningful impact, one chew at a time.

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