Wed, Feb 16, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Local authorities in the UK count the cost of gum crime

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The Mayan tribes of South America would chew chicle, a natural form of rubber. Ancient Greeks used the resin of a mastic shrub, and early American settlers gnawed on a mixture of spruce sap and beeswax.

In modern Britain, people like to chew sticks and tablets of manufactured gum -- and they also like to spit the tasteless residue on the ground.

After almost 150 years of this custom, local authorities are preparing to target companies who make chewing gum as well as their customers to try to stop the spread of polka dots on the pavements.

Measures contained in two pieces of forthcoming legislation, the cleaner neighborhoods and environment bill and the London local authorities bill, will classify chewing gum as litter, so increasing the obligation on and power of local authorities to act against those responsible.

But, amid skepticism about the government's favored tactic of on-the-spot fines, they also plan to turn the spotlight on the leading gum manufacturer, Wrigley, on the basis that the polluter should pay.

The Westminster council, which covers much of central London around Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, was scheduled yesterday to host the first capital cities "gum summit," with representatives from Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and Dublin -- where a tax on chewing gum sales has already been introduced.

It is an expensive problem. Throughout the UK, councils spend ?150 million (US$283 million) a year scraping goo from the streets. Recent research indicates that more than ?4 million is spent in London, with ?2 million of that contributed by London Underground.

The opposition Liberal Democrats in the British capital, who conducted the research, said chewing gum manufacturers should be forced to pay ? 0.01 from the sale of each pack as clean-up tax.

They also call on manufacturers to enlarge the anti-littering messages to cover 25 percent of gum packages, as is the case with health warning on cigarettes. At the moment, on some packages, the message covers just 0.6 percent.

Companies would also be obliged to spend a prescribed amount on local authority campaigns aimed at changing public behavior.

Mike Tuffrey, the party's environment spokesman in London, said: "We are slowly losing the battle to clean the streets of chewing gum. Gum that is irresponsibly spat onto the street is a nuisance, an eyesore and it is costing taxpayers millions each year to clean up."

Alan Bradley, the Westminster Cabinet member for street environment who will host the summit, said changing consumer behavior would be difficult.

"We believe there are as many as 300,000 pieces of gum on Oxford Street. In 2001, we took seven weeks to clear Oxford Street of gum. Within weeks it was as bad as before," he said.

The origins of modern chewing gum go back to World War II when the US, fearful of losing rubber plantations in the Far East to the Japanese, began looking for synthetic alternatives. A research program, second only in scale to the one that developed the nuclear bomb, resulted in the production of artificial substances which were later adapted to make car tyres, glue, shock absorbers and chewing gum.

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