The blue soles of a new brand of shoes are made from an unlikely source: recycled chewing gum. The shoes, which are expected to launch later this year, are the latest project from a U.K. designer who has spent nearly a decade working on ways to turn discarded gum from sticky sidewalk blight into something useful.
Anna Bullus was in design school when she started thinking about the problem. “I was looking at all the different types of curbside litter that we have and trying to understand what’s been done with them in terms of recycling, and I couldn’t find anything on chewing gum at all,” she says. “I could find loads of facts about how much it’s costing us and that all we do is endlessly clean communities up, and there was no real solution on the market.”
Local governments in the U.K. spend an estimated £60 million (around $82 million) a year scraping hardened blobs of gum off sidewalks or blasting it off with steam cleaners; in some cases, cleaning up a single piece of gum could end up costing as much as $2 in labor, when the gum itself might have cost 4 cents. Globally, a handful of locations have responded to the problem by banning gum. Disney theme parks don’t sell gum in order to avoid custodial costs. Some airports don’t sell gum. In Singapore, you can’t buy gum without a prescription.
A ban is unlikely in a city like London. But Bullus realized that gum–which is typically made with synthetic rubber, the same material found in a bicycle inner tube–could have a second life. “I spent a lot of time experimenting,” she says. “It was a little bit like cooking.” After four years of work with advisors, she arrived at a material that could be used in manufacturing.
She created a pink, bubble-shaped bin–itself made from recycled gum, blended with other recycled materials–to begin to collect the gum on central city streets, train stations, and other places with heavy foot traffic. When the bin is full, the whole container goes to a recycled facility, where any trash or cigarette butts are sorted out. The gum and bin are then recycled together (Bullus won’t divulge the exact process) and made into pellets that can be used in the same type of manufacturing equipment that usually works with regular plastic.
The bins seem to help change behavior when strategically placed. Bullus says that her company, Gumdrop, is learning where to best position the bins to have the greatest chance of intersecting with someone at the moment that they want to get rid of gum. Heathrow Airport, which now uses the bins, avoids about $8,000 a year on cleaning costs. A university, which uses the bins on three campuses, saves around $24,000. Any organization that uses the bins pays a fee for the service, but still spends less than they did in the past. The company also makes a tiny keychain attachment to collect gum, which people can mail in when it’s full.
Gumdrop uses the recycled material to make a handful of products, including a comb, frisbee, and a reusable coffee mug, which it sells at the university campuses where it collects gum. But shoes may have more mass appeal. “When you talk to people about chewing gum recycling and you start to talk about all the different products you could possibly make, I think some people find it psychologically quite a hard leap to think, do I actually want to touch that?” Bullus says. “I think what we’ve found with footwear is it’s a really nice story that people can actually get their head around. The fact that it’s gum on the street, and your shoes go everywhere, it’s a bit more palpable.”
The company recently started making a line of Wellington boots for children out of the recycled material. When the boots wear out, they can be sent back to the company and recycled again into new boots.
Manufacturing something out of gum requires a steady source of the raw material; to manufacture one of the collection bins, for example, takes about 70 pieces of gum in the larger mix of recycled material. But the company is also working with gum manufacturers to recycle their pre-consumer waste, which comes in large quantities. “We actually have too much waste at the moment and can’t get rid of it,” Bullus says.
Turning gum into new products, she hopes, will give consumers more incentive not to litter old gum on the streets–and potentially begin recycling other trash as well. “I think where we come from is if we’re able to make people change such a small habit, then we’ve got more chance of solving some of the other litter problems,” she says.