To walk the streets of New York and think about all the little black spots on the sidewalks is a little like pondering the stars in the night sky: How many people must have walked this way, deciding at just this moment to spit out their gum? It’s almost beautiful, except that gum attracts rats, sticks to shoes, and costs millions to clean up every year.
The numbers really are astronomical: In 2012, Americans spent roughly $3.4 billion on gum. A five-pack of gum costs about $0.35, so that’s—give or take—47 billion sticks of gum. Even if only a tiny fraction of gum chewers always neglect to throw their stale gum in a trashcan, the sidewalk constellations begin to make sense—and cleaning them up is expensive.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, one estimate has the cost of removing a single piece of gum from the sidewalk at a pound-and-a-half, or about $2.25; annually, cleaning gum off English and Welsh streets costs around 60 million pounds (currently about $91 million). It’s unclear exactly how much money is spent in the United States on removing gum from city streets, as the cost tends to fall to individuals or business owners, but it seems reasonable to guess that it’s proportionately higher. Anthony Mule, CEO of GumBusters in New York, wouldn’t discuss his prices, but year after year, he says, the same people need their sidewalks cleaned. “We have people call us back monthly, quarterly, twice a year, annually,” he says. “If they’re a clean freak they call us back quite often.” The gum never stops.
Singapore’s solution to this problem, in 1992, was to ban sales of chewing gum altogether. You could never do that here, though—it would defy the wishes of the Founding Fathers, as well the gum industry. Besides, it’s unnecessary. All we need is a little common-sense gum control. Here’s the place to start: When your gum loses its flavor and you have no place to put it, instead of spitting it onto the sidewalk, just swallow it.
People have the idea that it’s inherently bad to swallow gum. It’s not, as pediatrics professors Aaron E. Carroll and Rachel Vreeman write in Don’t Swallow Your Gum! Myths, Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health. “Gum is not designed to be swallowed,” says Scott Gilmore, a spokesman for Wrigley’s, the biggest gum company. “But if it is, it simply passes through your system as any other roughage.”
The sweeteners and flavorings in modern gum are delivered to us impregnated in a “gum base,” usually a combination of waxes, resins, plasticizers, softeners, preservatives, and synthetic rubbers like polyethylene, polyvinyl acetate, and styrene-butadiene. A lot of this stuff is indigestible, but for most people, a single piece of gum should smoothly sail through. We are essentially one tube, mouth to anus, with various gauges of pipe along the way, explains Allen Repp, a doctor at the University of Vermont Medical Center. After we chew and swallow our food (or gum, or nickels, or whatever), he says, it travels through our esophagus to our stomach, then on through the small and large intestine. Some people do this quickly, end-to-end in just a day, while other people might take as long as a week.
“It’s not going to get caught up on any anatomical point,” adds gastroenterologist and Nemours Children’s Hospital president David Bailey. “I cannot imagine an adult having issues swallowing their gum if they’re chewing two, three, four sticks a day.”
But none of the doctors I spoke with exactly endorse the idea of swallowing our gum, either. “I think, like most everything else in life, moderation is key to the issue,” Bailey says. While a piece or two should be no problem, if five, seven, or 12 pieces of gum happen to find each other en transit, they might clog the pipes—especially for people with very small pipes.
Bailey coauthored a 1998 paper that describes a 4 ½-year-old boy who swallowed five to seven pieces of gum each day, a 4-year-old girl who “had the habit of swallowing gum, often just to get another piece,” and a 1 ½-year-old, who arrived at the hospital with two dimes and a penny stuck in her esophagus, glued together with gum. The toddler was “a regular user of gum despite her young age.”
In all cases, an unlucky doctor had to pull apart a rainbow-hued mass of gum, with its characteristic “taffy-pull” action. In adults, the biggest danger from gum probably isn’t getting it stuck inside you, but from choking to death on it. A quick Internet survey reveals this has happened to people chewing while sleeping, chewing while working out, chewing while drunk, and many other activities besides. But people choke on all sorts of things, like pretzels and even live fish, and Bailey says that, past the age of two or so, there’s nothing particularly hazardous about the swallowing part of swallowing your gum.
So: When your gum loses its flavor, and you have no place to put it, instead of spitting it on the sidewalk, just swallow it. Don’t do it five times a day, though, or if you are a tiny child or otherwise infirm of gut and bowel.
It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but at least it’s not as overbearing as Singapore’s solution. Of course, the gum problem isn’t always just about people being careless: Singaporeans were purposefully sticking gum into the subway car’s sliding doors, slowing the system to a crawl. That may be the biggest problem with common sense gum-control—it relies too much on benign intentions.
Zach St. George is a freelance reporter based in California. He mostly grew out of chewing gum.