Recently when I was visiting my family in NY, I happened to look down and notice that those little dark circles that stud the sidewalks had become more numerous than ever.
You might be in New York and not even see them as you walk down the street, especially if you’re busy looking up at the buildings. But if you happen to glance in the general direction of your feet, you will see that there are wads of something-or-other seeded every few inches in seemingly random fashion on the concrete.
The culprit, of course, is chewing gum. You wouldn’t think there had been so much gum chewed since the world began, much less stuck to the sidewalks of one city. Here’s what it looks like:
New York isn’t the only city with the problem; far from it. Fittingly, Mexico City (in the vicinity of the birthplace of natural chicle chewing gum) is probably the worst offender, with an estimate of seventy wads of the stuff per paving square.
The days of the dominance of naturally biodegradable chicle are long gone, and although there have been attempts to revive them, the supply is inadequate to fill more than a fraction of the world’s needs, which are now met by the synthetic variety.
There are also machines made that specialize in the steam-cleaning of sidewalks marked with gum globs. But it’s clearly a tough task to keep up, one that New York is failing.
The world doesn’t lack for attempts at solutions. A non-sticky gum has been invented, but it has yet to crowd out the more tenacious—in every sense of the word—brands. Mexico City has suggested that people just swallow their gum if they can’t manage to use trash cans.
But Draconian Singapore has gone so far as to ban chewing gum, except for certain medicinal varieties. The ban began in 1992 and continues today:
This law was created because people disposed of gum incorrectly by sticking under places like chairs or tables…Chewing gum was causing serious maintenance problems in high-rise public housing flats, with vandals disposing of spent gum in mailboxes, inside keyholes and even on elevator buttons. Chewing gum left on floors, stairways and pavements in public areas increased the cost of cleaning and damaged cleaning equipment…
In 1987, the S$5 billion metro system, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), began operations…It was then reported that vandals had begun sticking chewing gum on the door sensors of MRT trains, preventing the door from functioning properly and causing disruption of train services. Such incidents were rare but costly and culprits were difficult to apprehend. In January 1992, Goh Chok Tong, who had just taken over as Prime Minister, decided on a ban.
Just as with the US Prohibition experience, there was upset at first. But, unlike Prohibition, the defiance died down:
When first introduced, the ban caused much controversy and some open defiance. Some took the trouble of traveling to neighbouring Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to purchase chewing gum. Offenders were publicly “named and shamed” by the government, to serve as a deterrent to other would-be smugglers. As time passed and the uproar died down, however, Singaporeans became accustomed to the lack of chewing gum.
Civil rights activists entered the picture for a while. But the softening of the ban, and the introduction of the “medicinal” exception (a gum that is supposed to whiten teeth, for example) was thanks to none other than our hero George Bush, who won the concessions in 2004 as part of a free trade agreement with Singapore.
And no, this is not an Onion article.