Lam: Why do humans love gum so much?
Nisker: There are few reasons. On the most basic level, the sweetness in gum provides us with a bit of an energy boost—because of sugar. If it’s sugarless, we still get an energy boost because chewing gum stimulates the body to expect food, and if we don’t get the expected food our body burns fat to fuel muscles. Also, the very act of chewing activates pleasure sensors in the brain—which helps us to relieve stress.
Lam: What’s the most interesting thing you learned making this movie?
Nisker: One of the most interesting facts we discovered is that gum was one of the first items to be mass marketed by Thomas Adams. The gum company he founded in 1869 is still around today. They make Chiclets!
Lam: What's the size of the gum industry today?
Nisker: The gum industry is huge. It was difficult to get firm figures from the companies themselves, but consensus seems to be that it's over a $19 billion industry.
Lam: How much gum do people in Toronto chew a year?
Nisker: In the film, we tried to figure out how much gum waste people generated in Toronto. We worked with ESRI, a Toronto-based company that uses GIS mapping analytics and photo-mapping software to quantify the amount of gum waste that shows up on the city’s sidewalks. What we discovered is that in an average year, Torontonians generate roughly 2,000 tons—that’s 275 sticks per person. Basically that’s a small herd of elephants.
Lam: So what are the economic concerns of gum?
Nisker: If you can imagine all that gum waste collecting on our sidewalks (not to mention, on our streetcar seats, carpets in public spaces, chairs in classrooms, our hair, etc.) there’s a lot of gross chewed gum sticking around. Most people ignore it in small patches, but where it concentrates it's a blight. Towns and cities in the U.K. are leaders at ridding gum waste—millions of pounds are spent removing gum on London’s streets. Across the U.K., that number is even higher. That’s a lot of money that could go elsewhere. When gum is being removed from public spaces, that’s tax dollars being spent. If it's private business, or business associations, that’s a cost that's being passed to consumers.
Lam: How many millions are we talking about?
Nisker: I don’t have a figure for Canada, but in the U.K. it’s £56 million. In Canada and the U.S., it seems that the cost falls on local business owners, whereas in the U.K. it's tax money and private funds.
Lam: Why is gum so hard to clean? How is it done?
Nisker: Modern gums are made from synthetic polymers, basically plastic and artificial rubber—and they are non-biodegradable. The very attributes that help [gum] hold the flavor in your mouth make it very difficult to remove when it ends up sticking on the sidewalk. Gum was once made from natural substances, which microbes could help biodegrade. But modern gums don’t offer them the right habitat to do their thing. It’s very difficult for any organism to eat plastic. So to clean it off the streets, you need to blast if off with loads of hot water and steam, plus some chemicals to help break it up. It's time consuming and it costs money.