New balls please: what happens to the one billion tennis balls used each year?
With the best players in the world serving speeds that can top 150 miles per hour, the tennis balls of Wimbledon take a serious beating, and have to be regularly replaced to maintain a high standard of performance. But what happens to all those used balls once the tournament is over?
Every year Wimbledon uses 55,000 of the one billion tennis balls produced, used and thrown away worldwide – with the components used in their manufacture travelling along supply chains more than 80,000 kilometres long before arriving on the court. Unfortunately, many of these balls are only used a few times before being discarded, and though Wimbledon sells many on and donates the rest to charity, the majority of tennis balls still end up in landfill once they’ve fallen out of use.
According to the International Tennis Federation, the process involved in the manufacturing of most 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. The process has been seen as unattractive due to the difficulty of separating and recycling the materials – but this doesn't mean there haven't been innovations to help keep more balls out of landfill.
Giving tennis balls a longer life
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.
Old 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.
The ‘friendly green tennis balls’ are still sold by the Royal Parks Foundation and pressureless balls in general have become more widely used. Though they have not been adopted for professional and tournament play, they are used commonly in beginner training and with tennis machines. The lack of pressurisation means these balls don’t deflate, last longer and use fewer resources. They also often come in recyclable packaging.
Innovations in recycling
If reinflating your balls doesn't strike your fancy, recent innovations have made it easier to separate tennis felt from rubber, and recycled tennis balls can be put to a number of different uses.
The Vermont-based tennis charity RecycleBalls has long been collecting balls for reuse, but in 2021 developed a process that will remove 99 per cent of tennis ball felt in a cost-effective manner. The balls they can’t reuse are now recycled into natural crumb rubber for use in tennis courts, children’s playgrounds and other forms of surfacing. They are currently working to develop new ways to use this ‘green gold’, with plans to turn it into a stucco-like product, and even into clothing.
In the UK, adoption of recycling technology for tennis balls is still limited and the focus remains on reusing old balls at the end of their lives, rather than recycling them into their component parts, but the good news is that there are plenty of ways to repurpose these old 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.
Some people have come up with slightly more creative alternative uses and have turned tennis balls into sellable items. Designers such as Tejo Remy, 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.
Tennis balls have even been used to help protect endangered harvest mice. By attaching balls to poles above the ground and boring holes into them, shelters can be made that allow mice to nest safely away from predators. The strategy was first used in 2001, with 36,000 tennis balls from Wimbledon donated to the Wildlife trust, and was copied in 2015 by the RSBP to house mice in their Dee Estuary site in north Wales.
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.
Give them to charity
Tennis ball recycler Recycaball (not to be confused with Recycleballs, mentioned above) effectively finds new homes for new tennis balls to help tennis ‘become greener and more eco-friendly’. Operating since 2010, the organisation now receives used balls from over 1,700 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 up to 20p per ball and collects both by mail, and through the collection bins put out by their member clubs.
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.
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.
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.