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Waste becomes an object of design (and even art)

The Product Designer Anna Bullus is on a mission: to recycle discarded chewing gum. And even art is becoming more and more circular.

by Simonetta Sandri
06 February 2020
5 min read
by Simonetta Sandri
06 February 2020
5 min read

Waste can be given a new life and turned into something useful, this we know. That second life can even be given to the material that often gets stuck to the soles of our shoes, discarded chewing gum: nothing can possibly be more useless and annoying. We are talking about serious quantities of waste, with £14bn per year spent on chewing gum worldwide, and constituting the second most prevalent type of waste on our streets, after cigarette butts. In the UK alone, approximately £50m per year is spent clearing up the mess made by chewing gum.  So, this is Anna Bullus's idea, born in 1984 and a former student at the University of Brighton’s College of Arts and Humanities: to collect and recycle. By studying the chemistry of chewing gum, Anna discovered that its main ingredient is the gum base, commonly known as a synthetic rubber, a type of polymer similar to plastic called polyisobutylene, the same material that's used for bicycle inner tubes and that is derived from petrochemical products, refined from fossil fuels such as crude oil.

So, even though the young designer had immediately understood how discarded chewing gum could be a versatile and potentially useful material, there was still the problem of convincing people to donate their gum rather than throwing it away, uncaringly and casually just tossing it onto the pavements of our streets and squares, whether they be elegant or rough, busy or quiet. So, a key aspect of Anna’s strategy has been to create a bright pink round bin, shaped like a bubble, where the chewed gum can be collected: the Gumdrop®, which can be hung at head height and is itself made of recycled chewing gum, Gum-tec® (a polymer, created by Anna, which she called BRGP, Bullus Recycled Gum Polymer).

Alongside every bin, the right message

A message alongside the bins explains that all the collected chewing gum will be recycled to make new objects. The result? The University of Winchester is one of the first to adopt them: around 8,000 people live and work on the campus and the authorities want to keep it free from discarded chewing gum. Following the installation of 11 bins, hundreds of coffee cups made of recycled gum were handed out to first-year students in an attempt to reinforce the message. Eighteen months later, the university had noticed a drop in chewing gum discarded around the campus and decided to expand the scheme. The same successful experiment has been implemented at Heathrow airport, Great Western Railway train stations, Legoland, Southampton airport and at many other locations. Not yet the solution to the problem, but it's a great start. The second stage of Anna's challenge was to find industry partners willing to recycle the old gum to make new objects. Then along came support from a recycling facility in Worcester, a plastic printing specialist in Leicester (Amber Valley) and, more recently, from Wrigley, the industry giant that has welcomed the idea of experimenting with ways to convert discarded chewing gum into objects. The gum is collected, heated and reworked, and as a result some shoe soles are now made of chewing gum.  An ironic turnaround when you consider how often you’ve tried to scrape it off.

Waste becomes art

If discarded chewing gum can be turned into something useful, it's not difficult to imagine how many waste products could become objects used for art. There are already loads of examples. 
Some years ago a group of German artists, with Recycle Art, managed to recover all the parts from car and motorcycle wrecks and welded them together to create sculptures that were completely original and unique. Reuse can also be a catalyst for creativity and beauty. In another example, a Colombian artist transforms waste into animals. Federico Uribe, born in 1962, with his Animal Farm project, used the soles of old trainers to create a cow, and made a donkey out of discarded corks.

Today, to help bring this theme to the fore, the Hera Group recently organised an exhibition in Bologna called SCART the beautiful, useful side of waste, where many fragments of reality invited consumers to see waste in another light. A homo faber that rediscovers the harmony between use and recycling, between development and sustainability, between ethic and aesthetic, between reality and fiction, between today and tomorrow. The exhibition collates pieces created by artists and students from the Accademie di Belle Arti di Bologna e Firenze (the Florence and Bologna Academies of Fine Arts), capable of working with waste materials to create works of art of various shapes and sizes. A lovely experiment that puts beauty right, front and centre and rediscovers a lost equilibrium: the art of rebuilding reality by looking for its future.