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Toronto's invisible pollution

By Renee Tratch
Digital Writer, theweathernetwork.com
Thursday, November 6, 2014, 7:40 PM

Toronto is strewn with litter – an almost invisible kind. Stroll down any street and you’ll see pavement speckled with varying amounts of smeared wads of gum.

And there is a lot of it – an estimated 719 million globs of non-biodegradable gum are stuck on our city’s sidewalks.

This is just one discovery that Toronto-based award-winning documentarian Andrew Nisker uncovered as part of his new film Dark Side of the Chew, premiering this Sunday, November 9 at the annual Planet in Focus environmental film festival.

While researching his last film Garbage: The Revolution Starts at Home, Nisker learned that the sticky stuff is the world’s second largest form of litter. (Cigarette butts are number one).

The quest to discover its social, environmental and economic impact took him around the world and onto Toronto streets.

“It’s a typical story of a product that was once natural became over consumed and a synthetic version was made,” explains Nisker. “And that’s when all the environmental problems come in.”

He says most consumers are unaware that what they’re chewing on is a non-biodegradable plastic polymer. When disposed of improperly as litter, it requires an incredible amount of water, heat, energy and time to remove it. It’s a task that each year can cost in the billions worldwide. In the film he joins the clean-up crew in the streets of London, England and learns that the water and gum waste are often collected and dumped right back into the system.

“In Toronto, we know our storm sewers are connected directly to Lake Ontario and that is where that type of plastic ends up,” explains Nisker. “It becomes a part of that bigger plastic pollution problem that we’re facing globally right now.”

RELATED: More trees please, Toronto

In the film Nisker speaks with marine biologist Dr. Sherri Mason from State University of New York at Fredonia, the first scientist to study plastic contamination in the Great Lakes. She explains that while most people are appalled by images of bottles and bags floating in our water systems, scientists are becoming more worried that these tiny plastic particles that look like fish food will eventually make its way into our food chain.

Of course, one solution to this part of the plastic problem is a biodegradable gum. While some removable and degradable alternatives such as natural gum extracted from chicozapote trees found in the tropical jungles of Mexico and Rev 7 exist, a mass-produced easily available product is not yet in sight.

“Companies are trying to figure out the holy grail of creating a biodegradable gum that will mimic what artificial gum does right now,” explains Nisker. Until that mystery is solved, he urges gum-chewers to simply dispose of the gum properly. “Throw it in the trash.”

Nisker has teamed up with Esri Canada, a leading supplier of geographic information system solutions, to help raise awareness of global gum pollution. Esri, who analyzed more than 7,100 km of Toronto’s sidewalks for the film, is building a soon-to-be launched Gum Shoe App where a smart phone user anywhere in the world can take a picture of their neighbourhood’s gum-strewn sidewalks and upload it. Each piece of gum in the frame is identified and the collected data is geocoded and added to a world map where the extent of chewing gum litter can be easily visualized and analyzed.

Nisker hopes that the film and the app will pressure governments, industry and consumers to tackle these polluting habits.

The world premiere of The Dark Side of the Chew at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema closes the Planet in Focus Film Festival. Torontonians can catch the film on TVO in 2015 or organize an Earth Month screening with the filmmaker. You can hear more about the film via Nisker’s TEDxUofT talk:

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