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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Reducing Waste With Chewing Gum Plastic, Innovative Design

Rather than creating more waste, two new plastic solutions are speaking to the eco-conscious: Gumdrop Ltd. is using chewing gum in a novel, closed-loop recycling solution, while a new container was designed for improved reusability and recyclability.

Rather than creating more waste, two new plastic solutions are speaking to the eco-conscious: Gumdrop Ltd. is using chewing gum in a novel, closed-loop recycling solution, while a new container was designed for improved reusability and recyclability.

The inspiration behind Gumdrop is similar to that behind Veolia and Hubbub’s recent “Neat Streets” anti-litter behavior change campaign: In London, cigarette butts and chewing gum are responsible for 78 percent of all observed litter. While completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Brighton, Anna Bullus became interested in recycling as she studied plastics and material experimentation. Bullus challenged herself to turn pieces of gum into a receptacle that could collect more gum waste that could subsequently be used to make more bins. After extensive experimentation, a bright pink, bubble-shaped bin – the ‘Gumdrop’ – was born.

Bullus’ moldable polymer, now known as ‘Gum-tec,’ was refined to be suitable for commercial use in injection- and blow-molding during three years of development with the Polymers Department at London Metropolitan University.

“Gum-tec is the brand name we have given for a group of new compounds that are made with recycled chewing gum,” Bullus told British Plastics & Rubber. “Most of the compounds that we create are thermoplastic and thermoplastic elastomers. It has taken a huge amount of time to develop these different compounds and to understand which applications they would be best suited to. We are still developing and still learning new things everyday, so this process is ongoing as we get better at what we do.”

Gumdrop bins have been installed in several locations across the UK since they hit the market in 2011. The contents of each full bin can be used to manufacture three new bins which can be distributed to new locations. Bullus says that each bin can reduce gum litter by up to 46 percent in the first 12 weeks of use, and are now gaining traction outside the UK.

“We have just launched Gumdrop in Denmark, which we are extremely excited about,” Bullus said. “We have started working with schools and universities there, as well as implementing educational resources. There are so many countries that all have a gum litter problem, so I hope that we can soon start working in other European countries, as well as the US.”

Gumdrop also manufactures wellington boots and other consumer products that they expect to be commercially available this year.

Sustainable packaging is a design challenge in itself, especially for consumer products. Munich-based designer Marilu Valente of Merged Vertices observed that in terms of recycling, “in the cosmetics sector, the containers are especially problematic; usually their unique function is to attract the consumer’s attention.” With this problem in mind, she designed Nephentes, a reusable, eye-catching packaging named after tropical pitcher plants.

“The inspiration came from 2 main factors,” she explained to PSFK. “The first one being that usual personal care packaging are made with different types of plastics (one for the cap and one for the body) so I wanted to have a shape which integrated the body of the bottle and the cap.

Valente envisions a future where bottles are refilled and reused many times before they are recycled. The bottle’s sides are squeezable to that it is possible to get all of the contents out, and the bottle opens at the bottom so it can easily be cleaned out and refilled.

Small quantities can be 3D-printed from bioplastic. Valente is considering initially bringing Nephentes bottles to market at zero-waste grocery stores.

Meanwhile, a new life cycle assessment study demonstrated the energy and climate benefits of various types of plastic packaging compared to alternatives. The report, Impact of Plastics Packaging on Life Cycle Energy Consumption & Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States and Canada (PDF download), was prepared for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), and analyzed the 7 most predominant packaging resins (LDPE, HDPE, PP, PVC, PS, EPS, and PET); bio-based plastics were not analyzed given their small market share. The study covered 6 categories of packaging: caps and closures, beverage containers, other rigid containers, carrier (shopping) bags, stretch/shrink wrap, and other flexible packaging.

The study claims that replacing all plastic packaging of these 6 categories in Canada with alternatives such as paper and paperboard, glass, steel, aluminum, textiles, rubber and cork would require twice as much energy use and result in 2.3 times more global warming potential. In the US, replacing plastic packaging with alternatives would require 80 percent more energy use and result in 1.3 times more global warming potential (in carbon dioxide equivalents). In both countries, the substitutions would require around 4.4 times as much packaging material by weight. Average recycling rates and waste disposal pathway statistics were used in the end-of-life calculations.

"Plastic packaging enables the safe and efficient delivery of various products which form part of our daily lives, everything from food to essential health and safety aids. However, many are unaware that plastics carry out these functions while at the same time conserving energy and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. This study clearly articulates these benefits to sustainability," said Carol Hochu, president and CEO of the CPIA.