Resource Use

New balls please: what happens to the 300 million tennis balls discarded every year?

This weekend sees the curtain fall on the US Open Tennis Championships, the last of the four major annual tennis tournaments.

These tournaments draw the best and most powerful players in the world, with 128 men and 128 women tennis players competing in the first round and, throughout the tournament, serving at speeds that can top 150 miles per hour. Needless to say, the tennis balls take a bit of a beating and are replaced regularly to maintain high standards of play. But what happens to all the balls after the tournament? 

New balls please: what happens to the 300 million tennis balls discarded every year?

Every year 300 million tennis balls are manufactured globally, with 125 million of these used in the US alone and last year around 98,000 balls were made specifically for the US Open. Unfortunately, very few of the tennis balls used in America are recycled – less than half a per cent, according to ball recycler Retour Tennis – which annually results in over 100 million tennis balls being sent to US landfills.

According to the International Tennis Federation, the process involved in the manufacture of tennis balls has barely changed over the last 100 years. They’re generally made of natural rubber containing additives to enhance strength, colour and low gas permeability.

After the rubber is cured and moulded into shape, the balls are inflated either through the production of nitrogen using chemicals or using compressed air. The balls are then covered in two types of cloth which are bonded with adhesive to the rubber by heating.

Unfortunately, while increasing the strength of the tennis balls this process also results in a very slow rate of decomposition when sent to landfill. Despite this, there is currently no industry-wide sustainable way to recycle tennis balls as the process until fairly recently has been unattractive due to the need for a separate grinding step. 

Things are gradually changing, however, and today there are several different ways to reuse your used tennis balls.

101 things to do with a used tennis ball

There are loads of DIY ways to make tennis balls useful after their playing days are over. You can use them to remedy a number of common household problems, by sticking them on the bottom of chair legs to protect your floor, for instance, cutting them in half to create a jar opener or using them to remove scuff marks from floors.

New balls please: what happens to the 300 million tennis balls discarded every year?
In 2001, balls from Wimbledon were donated to The Wildlife Trust to create homes for harvest mice
Some people have come up with slightly more creative alternative uses and have turned tennis balls into sellable items.  Designers such as Tejo Remy and René VeenHuizen, Charles O’Toole and Will Holman have used tennis balls to produce trendy furniture (though it’s sadly not commercially available), whereas MANIkordstudio upcycles tennis balls into everything from chapstick holders to wallets, purses and holders for credit cards and iPhones.

In 2001, 36,000 tennis balls from the Wimbledon tennis tournament were even used to help protect endangered harvest mice. Donated balls were attached to poles above ground and had holes bored into them that allowed the mice to safely build nests away from predators. The scheme was run by the Wildlife Trust in Avon, Glamorgan and Northumberland with balls donated from the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Although these do provide alternative uses for some used tennis balls, and stop them being sent to landfill, such novel ideas can’t deal with the millions of tennis balls that are produced each year, meaning a more sustainable solution is still needed. 

Make them last longer

As the rubber used to make tennis balls is gas permeable, the gas gradually escapes, causing the balls to lose pressure and therefore their bounce. They are often sold in pressurised cans to prevent gas loss prior to use.

'Your Friendly Green Tennis Balls', produced by the Royal Parks Foundation, Will to Win and Second Serve have a guaranteed ‘lifetime bounce’
Deflated tennis balls can now be repressurised which can make them last longer and reduce the need to buy brand new balls. If that doesn’t appeal, then there are also now non-pressurised tennis balls on the market.

A more eco-friendly tennis ball was launched in 2015 by a collaboration involving the Royal Parks Foundation, Second Serve, which campaigns for reducing the environmental impact of tennis equipment and clothing, and Will to Win, a company that aims to improve public tennis facilities and encourage people to play tennis in the UK.

The product is approved by the International Tennis Federation and has a ‘lifetime bounce guaranteed’. The lack of pressurisation means the balls don’t deflate, last longer and use fewer resources. They also come in recyclable packaging. Advantage Royal Parks Foundation!

Give them to charity

Tennis ball recycler Recycaball effectively finds new homes for new tennis balls to help tennis ‘become greener and more eco-friendly’. Operating since 2009, the organisation now receives used balls from over 500 tennis clubs and coaches throughout the UK and also offers a repressurising service for balls that have seen little use.

Donated balls are sent to children’s charities in the UK and abroad and to deprived schools and nurseries. Some are sent for use in physiotherapy at retirement homes and others to train police dogs or as toys to dog shelters. Recycaball pays £20 for every 200 balls, as well as covering all shipping costs and arranging for a courier to collect them.

Turn them into flooring

Project Green Ball is a US-based voluntary product stewardship programme, which is aimed at finding innovative ways to reuse tennis balls through a number of different projects involving recycling and charitable donations.

New balls please: what happens to the 300 million tennis balls discarded every year?
L’Opération Balle Jaune uses balls to create soft sports floors like this one at Amiens University Hospital
Their main project has been converting balls into cushioned mats for the surface of tennis courts, a process which utilises around 10,000 balls per court. In addition to reusing the balls, Project Green Ball donates a ‘ball-based surface’ to a programme for people with disabilities for every 200,000 balls recycled. So far 254,000 balls have been collected through this project from over 90 different organisations and individuals.

A similar initiative to recycle the 17 million tennis balls used every year in France has been in place since 2008. L’Opération Balle Jaune collects balls from the French Open and turns them into coatings for sports hall floors. Since its implementation, eight million tennis balls have been collected with 1.5 million forecast to be collected in 2016 alone.

Collected balls are sent to a milling company where they are ground down and rubber is separated from the outer fabric by a ‘blowing process’. Using this process, 40,000 balls can be converted into 100 square metres of floor covering, and so far 30 completed sports floors have been produced using recycled tennis balls.

Through the L’Opération Balle Jaune project, France is now recycling around 10 per cent of its used tennis balls every year, so it looks like it’s game, set and match to France.

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