Tennis Has a Recycling Problem

Tennis balls can't be recycled, and experts are grappling with how to manage that waste
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 10, 2023 8:30 AM CDT
Tennis Has a Recycling Problem
Tennis balls are displayed during the fourth round of the US Open in New York.   (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Tennis has a fuzzy yellow problem most players don't think about when they open can after can of fresh balls, or when umpires at US Open matches make their frequent requests for "new balls please." Because tennis balls are extremely hard to recycle and the industry has yet to develop a ball to make that easier, nearly all of the 330 million balls made worldwide each year eventually get chucked in the garbage, with most ending up in landfills, where they can take more than 400 years to decompose, per the AP. It's a situation highlighted by Grand Slam events like the one at Flushing Meadows in New York, which will go through nearly 100,000 balls by the time things wrap up this weekend.

That harsh reality in an age of heightened environmental awareness has sent ball makers, recyclers, and the game's worldwide governing body scrambling for solutions, and spurred sustainability activists to sound the alarm in online posts that pose the question: Are tennis balls a disaster for the planet? "Tennis balls, like a lot of objects, are made to be indestructible, which means they're very resistant to mechanical processing," says Nickolas J. Themelis, director of Columbia University's Earth Engineering Center. "But do you take a useful object that lasts forever and say people shouldn't use it because it lasts forever? That's nonsense."

Themelis and other experts note that tennis balls make up a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of tons of garbage produced every year, and the keys with all difficult-to-recycle materials are finding ways to extend their useful life through other purposes and taking care in their ultimate disposal to keep them out of the environment. "Anyone who would say you shouldn't play tennis because of the tennis balls is misinformed," says Jason Quinn, director of Colorado State University's Sustainability Research Laboratory. "In terms of the impact, it's a blip on the radar. ... And there are things you can do to reuse and repurpose tennis balls to lessen the impact."

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Among them are efforts by nonprofits and others to go beyond just using old balls for dog toys and the bottom of chairs. That includes collecting balls in bulk and grinding them down into material that is used to make products including the footing for horse arenas and—in a bit of perfect symmetry—tennis courts. But experts and environmentalists question whether those initiatives are viable enough to make a dent, and they say such efforts don't address the underlying problem of a lack of a fully recyclable tennis ball, or the factors that make balls particularly troublesome. What's more, the core of most top-level tennis balls is only made from newly created, virgin rubber, which activists say leads to deforestation of rubber trees in the Amazon. (Meanwhile, an activist glued his feet to the US Open floor to bring attention to environmental issues.)

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