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Chewing Gum

Volume 686: debated on Tuesday 31 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they will take to reduce the level of urban pollution caused by the illegal depositing of used chewing gum on pavements and streets.

My Lords, chewing gum was defined as litter in the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, to enable fixed penalty notices to be issued to individuals caught disposing of gum inappropriately.

There is currently a Defra-chaired group involving manufacturers and local government, with a remit to reduce the amount of gum on the streets. It has focused on long-term behaviour change, working with local authorities to deliver an advertising campaign, supported by local activity, including education and enforcement.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that fairly bland reply, and I hope that he will not find my supplementary question unhealthy.

Is the Minister aware of the results of my research, undertaken in preparation for this Question, into the lifecycle of the chewing gum? As he knows, it starts life in a wrapper, with a nice notice on the outside: “Please use this wrapper prior to disposal”. It then enters the mouth, where it is mixed with saliva, often with respiratory pathogens and occasionally with blood, if you have recently been to a dentist for teeth cleaning. It is masticated and then given its exit in the form of excrement. This excrement is either spat on to the pavement or disposed of in other ways and carries with it certain dangers. As it hits the pavement, it is commonly or colloquially known as a “gum turd”. This gum turd may retain viruses and bacteria for as long as it is wet. Then it becomes a “flat”, and then it is cleaned up at a cost of maybe 50p per piece or less if there is a major discount for 30 pieces per square metre.

Will the Minister confirm that there is no possibility of people catching a contagious disease from a gum turd, a flat or a stain? Is he aware that underneath us now, in the House of Lords entrance chamber, there are three pieces of gum? Would he inspect them tonight, to make sure that the evidence is not withdrawn?

My Lords, on the latter point, most certainly not. The noble Lord raises a serious issue. Gum is not biodegradable. The manufacturers keep promising to make biodegradable gum, but we see no evidence that they are doing anything to that effect. It costs local authorities a fortune—on average, I understand about £13,000 per local authority. With the number of authorities, that is about £5 million to clear the stuff up. It lasts, I am told, on the street for something like three or four years. It is expensive to clean. Some local authorities have used people on community service orders to try to clean it up. It is unsightly if it gets on clothes and shoes. It is a very anti-social way of disposing of something that one has purchased. Ninety-one per cent of our high streets are affected, according to samples. It is a serious issue, and it is going to look a right mess, particularly all over London, as we go towards the Olympics.

My Lords, the Irish have persuaded Wrigley’s to donate €7 million to help clean up the problem. Do this Government have any intention of trying to persuade Wrigley’s to do the same in the UK?

My Lords, we are going to learn from the Irish work. I understand that part of the money will be spent on a contract with one of the universities to try to find a way of manufacturing biodegradable gum. That can be done in Ireland, and we can learn from it here.

My Lords, my noble friend will agree with me that this is a very sticky Question, of course—

My Lords, I do not think that matters are helped by the sight of football managers chewing away on TV. What kind of message does that give to young people who are watching?

My Lords, for some time I have felt that a levy or tax should be placed on gum to the tune of, say, a penny per piece, and the revenue raised then distributed to local authorities to help them to fund the clear-up of the mess. Will the Government give that consideration?

My Lords, we have, and it has been dismissed on the basis that people who are anti-social enough to dispose of gum this way will have their conscience eased on the basis that they have paid for it to be cleaned up. We want them to change their behaviour in the first place. We do not think that a tax is the right way to do it.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cost to Westminster City Council, which has one team working on this with what is called a “gum blaster”, is £100,000 per year? The estimate is that it is able to clean only one-12th of what is required, but 12 teams would cost £1.2 million per year, just for that one local authority.

My Lords, I am aware of some of the details. I did not catch the question, but I am aware that it is very expensive for Westminster Council as, indeed, it is for some of the big urban councils. Obviously too many anti-social, uncaring people are disposing of gum this way when there are other ways of disposing of it. Some local authorities have gum stickers on lamp posts and other kinds of things where you stick the gum and it then gets cleared up. So there are disposable products that local authorities can use to assist people and direct them in the right way to dispose of the gum.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that chewing gum can get on to the grooves of wheelchairs, pushchairs and prams? If there is a problem with infection, has there been any research on it?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. In some ways, gum might be an anti-social product, but it is the disposing of it that is anti-social. There is no question about that. I can well understand that getting it on the wheels of wheelchairs is far more serious than getting it on the soles of one’s shoes. I am unaware of any research into the health issues, but since they have been raised in two different connections I will have some questions asked.

My Lords, bearing in mind the answer that my noble friend gave to the noble Baroness about disposal, does he agree that it would be helpful if the Government could have some negotiations with chewing gum manufacturers with a view to their sponsoring rubbish bins in which their product could be disposed after people had finished with it? It is almost impossible to see anywhere except the general litter bin where used chewing gum could go. This problem will clearly get worse as more people chew nicotine replacement gum as they attempt to give up smoking.

My Lords, I will be honest: that was in my original Answer, and I took it out because I could not read it aloud. This is a serious issue, and I took it out to make it a serious issue. But I have been asked the question. There is a chewing gum action group, made up of the gum manufacturers, Local Government Association and other bodies. It is chaired by Defra, and I will see that my noble friend's suggestion is put on the agenda.

My Lords, perhaps I may make a simple and practical suggestion. When the Government introduce their next public order Bill—I think that there is one every Session—they should include provision whereby the police have authority to issue a fixed penalty of four hours of litter picking to any litter lout.

My Lords, legislation was introduced to enable fixed penalty notices to be issued. I do not have any figures, but I understand that some people have been issued with fixed penalty notices for dumping gum. It is classified legally as litter. Some people have been given on-the-spot fines. I cannot say that it is working—although it has started operating—as you can clearly see from the mess that is around us.

My Lords, many local authorities now are looking to do just that. They have fined some people and publicised it locally to deter this appalling habit. Does the Minister agree that, if there is to be sponsorship from chewing gum companies, an appropriate place for the sponsorship would be on the little machines that go around clearing up the stuff? Perhaps he would be interested to learn that in the borough of Pendle, where I am a councillor, there is an excellent little machine called Doris, which goes around removing all the graffiti. It is accompanied on its tour every week by the gumbuster. Doris and the gumbuster do a brilliant job, but it is very expensive. If it could be sponsored by the people who are basically responsible for the gum; that would certainly help local authorities throughout the country.

My Lords, I understand that one company has 98 per cent of the market, so we do not have to talk about the “companies’” sponsorship—it is one company.

My Lords, it is Defra-chaired. It was invented by my right honourable friend Alun Michael. I hope that I do not chair it, but I suspect that if there is a Minister responsible it would be the Minister for waste, Ben Bradshaw.