The unassuming tennis ball is not usually brought up in conversations about pollution and other environmental hazards facing the planet, but one organisation has been on a mission to raise awareness about the dangers posed by incorrect tennis ball disposal.
“There’s a lot of trash out there, and tennis balls don’t need to be part of it,” said Erin Cunningham, CEO of Recycle Balls, a non-profit based out of Vermont, who added that tennis balls, made of rubber, can take approximately 400 years to decompose,
Using the organisation’s patented Quickship bin placed at various locations in the United States and Canada, players are able to ensure that tennis balls discarded in the bins will eventually be recycled at a facility in Vermont, where the non-profit is located.
The recycling process makes it possible to remove most of the felt of the tennis ball, leaving the rubber to be chopped and turned into something the non-profit calls GREEN GOLD, which can be used to create tennis court surfaces, stucco wall replacements, and even mulch or ground cover.
According to Recycle Balls, since its 2016 founding, there have been 75,000 collection bins placed near courts and various locations in both the US and Canada, resulting in 12 million tennis balls that have been kept out of landfills.
Occasionally, Recycle Balls assists in reusing the balls without the recycling process.
“They can go on to the bottom of mobility aids for people who need walkers or other support in their mobility. They can be used on the bottom of chairs at schools, particularly for classrooms that need some silencing, to make everything a better learning environment,” said Cunningham.
“They can be used for dog toys, there's just a variety of uses that, you know, tennis balls can have a second or third life."
The sliced and diced recycled balls have also found some success in being used for surfaces in equestrian arenas.
“That’s one of the areas where the felt and the rubber of the ball can actually be used together, which is ideal,” Cunningham said.
The non-profit has also explored the possibility of creating new tennis balls from recycled balls, but the economics have proved difficult, although not impossible.
“It really does take a whole community,” she said, referring to the idea of making tennis balls in a more sustainable way.
“We’re looking for a partner in the tennis manufacturing space … looking at how we can get someone in the tennis industry who is interested in taking the time to use a recycled product instead of starting from scratch.”
Recycle Balls has previously partnered with Wilson Sporting Goods to raise awareness about the recycling efforts.
It has also partnered with Laykold, the official surface of major tournaments such as the US Open, Miami Open and Davis Cup.
Currently, Recycle Balls focuses mainly on the US and Canada, but it doesn't rule out the possibility of expanding to other countries where it makes environmental sense, as it wouldn't be practical to ship tennis balls around the world for the purposes of recycling if the carbon footprint exceeded the recycling efforts.
"We have continued to receive a stream of requests to bring our patented bin system, programmes, processes, and intellectual property to other countries," a statement on the non-profit's website reads.
Recycle Balls was founded in 2016 by entrepreneur Derrick Senior and his son, Ryan, both avid tennis players who realised how many tennis balls they regularly went through while playing.
Although it’s not often mentioned as one of the more environmentally taxing sports, tennis isn’t a stranger to the occasional ecological controversy.
During the US Open semi-final between Coco Gauff and Karolina Muchova, climate protesters in the stadium caused an hour-long delay during the match.
There’s also the ongoing back-and-forth battle regarding Wimbledon expansion plans, which call for the addition of 38 new courts that residents and some critics say will cause "substantial harm to and loss of" protected open land.