Gum Boost: The pink bins solving the UK’s gum problem

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Gumdrop instals its pink bins in public areas to gather up waste chewing gum. Once full, the bun and its contents are recycled to create more bins, or other plastic products, creating an eco-friendly ‘closed loop’. By David W. Smith

Anna Bullus – the British inventor of an innovative method of recycling chewing gum – is fascinated by the intensity of reactions to her products. They range from total disgust to wild enthusiasm. “It’s a ‘marmite product’ which people either love or hate,” she says. “In tests, I give people an Americano in a coffee cup and then tell them it’s made from recycled chewing gum. They either say ‘oh my god, that’s revolting. It’s been in someone else’s mouth’, or they say, ‘oh my god that’s amazing. What a cool idea’.”

Bullus has a strong argument to put to anyone hesitating about drinking their Americano. “I say ‘we all go to restaurants and we’re happy to eat with knives and forks that have been in thousands of mouths. They’re sterilised so it’s fine’,” she says.

CHEWING GUM TO MOULDABLE PLASTIC

Gumdrop was founded in 2009 after Bullus found a method of recycling gum into a mouldable plastic that can be made into new products, such as cups, lunchboxes, rulers and guitar picks. The company’s main product is a pink bin that collects the chewing gum. Once it’s full, the whole bin is recycled into three more bins, creating an eco-friendly ‘closed loop’ process.

The idea of recycled gum has captured imaginations, especially among the young, and Gumdrop’s growth has been rapid. Several British airports, including London Heathrow, have installed the pink bins. They can also be found in shopping centres, hotels, universities, theme parks, schools and high streets.

The recycled items are shipped all over the UK from Gumdrop’s main factory in Birmingham and there’s a hub in Germany to service the growing European market, especially in Denmark and Holland. Wherever it is found, the pink bin is becoming an instantly recognisable sight to gum-chewers.

“The idea behind pink was that it was the first colour of bubble gum,” says Bullus. “And we’ve been strict in not varying the colour. Lots of companies have wanted to use their own colours, or livery and we’ve got fantastic big-name clients, such as the O2, the British Library, Royal Mail and Virgin Trains, but all our bins will remain pink.”

CHANCE DISCOVERY

Like so many scientific discoveries, Gumdrop happened by chance. Bullus was studying 3D Design at the University of Brighton and her final-year project involved finding a method to recycle curbside litter.

“Every day I gathered litter on my way home, then Googled everything I found. One crisp packet had a piece of gum in it and Google results suggested no one had ever recycled gum before,” she says. “So, I spent the best part of my nal year doing experiments in the chemistry lab. I don’t have much of a science head on me, but in the end I came up with a strange foam-like material that was mouldable.”

Bullus left university in 2006 and largely forgot about her invention. She got a job as a junior product designer in London and it wasn’t until she was asked to display her recycling process in a travelling exhibition that she returned to it. “I started to get emails from all over the world, including Europe, the US and China, asking if they could buy the bin. I started to think ‘maybe I should be doing this’,” she says.

First, Bullus had to be sure her idea was original and could be patented. She took samples of the foam to London Metropolitan University Polymer Centre, where a researcher con rmed she had indeed invented a new material. “When I heard that, I was shocked and excited. It means that I actually created a chemical change at a molecular level that had never been seen before. I called my new product Gum-tec. Although I can’t say how it works as that’s our intellectual property, the recycling process is green and low-energy,” she says.

It took four years to come up with a process that was scalable before Bullus quit her job and set up in an of office in Notting Hill, London. By this stage, she was aware of the potentially huge worldwide market for Gumdrop products.

SOLUTIONS TO GUM

According to Zürich University, 374 billion sticks of chewing gum are sold worldwide every year. Most of the gum ends up as either landfill waste, or dropped as litter on to floors and pavements, costing huge amounts of time and money to clean. In the United Kingdom, around nine out of 10 paving stones have gum stuck on them and cleaning it off costs local councils £150 million a year. The cleaning process also uses unsustainable amounts of water and chemicals that damage the environment. Even when the gum is removed, a permanent oily stain remains.

The Gumdrop bin was born in 2010 and in 2011 Bullus offered free trials to anyone with a gum problem. One of the most successful installations was at Legoland Theme Park, in Windsor, where a total of 50 Gumdrop bins reduced gum litter by 56 per cent. Another instructive case study was at Southampton Airport where pink bins placed in the male toilets helped to save £3,000 a year. “They had a huge problem with chewing gum blocking up the urinals and that’s no longer an issue,” Bullus says.

Gumdrop also manufactures a mini Gumdrop On-the-go, which comes with a key ring. It then rents, or sells, Gumdrop On-the-go Drop Off Boxes to be placed in accessible areas. The gum users drop off their mini Gumdrops into the Drop Off Box, which the company collects for recycling.

A second part of the Gumdrop business recycles waste products from the manufacturing process and sells them in the form of pellets back to the plastics industry. Previously, the waste would have gone straight to land ll. “One of our most exciting projects is a wellington boot made from the recycled waste materials,” says Bullus. “We’re working with a high street manufacturer and it will be launched next year. The material works perfectly for the rubbery, non-flip feel of the boots. But it’s a very flexible material and we can create almost anything on a bespoke basis.”

In the middle of next year, Gumdrop’s products will be introduced into the US, which is the largest gum market in the world. The average American chews 300 sticks a year and the energy expended every day chewing gum could light up a US city of 10 million people.

“In the US, chewing gum is seen as part of the sweet market whereas in the UK it’s more about chewing it after meals, or to freshen up breath,” says Bullus. “The potential is enormous and our goal is to see Gumdrops all over America and Europe. It won’t be easy to achieve. Other people will also have seen the potential and will be working on rival products right now.”

Chewing the facts

Humans have chewed gum for 9,000 years. Students excavated Stone Age gum made from birch bark in Kierikki, Finland, in 2007. The Ancient Greeks chewed gum made from the resin of the mastic tree. Greek gum was used as a remedy for snake bites, as well as cleaning teeth and freshening breath.

In 1848, John B. Curtis made the rst commercial chewing gum called the State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum. But Thomas Adams was the rst man to create chewing gum as we know it when he brought a natural gum called chicle over from Mexico to America in 1871.

The average American chews around 300 sticks of gum per year, whereas in Singapore it has been illegal since 2004 and there are large nes for contraventions. In 1964, NASA gave sugarless gum to astronauts on the Gemini space missions to help keep teeth and gums healthy.

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Photo credit: Sandra on Flickr.

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An editor with a passion for social justice and the environment, David has been a journalist for 20 years. He began learning the trade on a local paper in Lincolnshire and worked his way up to the national papers in London.

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