In the grand scheme of things, old used tennis balls don't get a lot of attention. There aren't billions of them bobbing like plastic bottles in vast ocean cesspools. They don't litter every empty lot in every U.S. city like single-use plastic bags. But, when they start to lose their bounce, inquiring minds begin to wonder:
What the heck can we do with the 325 million tennis balls that go flat every year?
Two years ago, Bill Dermody realized that a lot of his customers at his tennis store in Madison, Wis., were asking him that very question. Recognizing that not everyone has five golden retrievers or a walker that works better with tennis-ball feet, he felt compelled to find an answer.
So, he did his homework and discovered several interesting facts:
• 125 million tennis balls are sold in the U.S. annually (325 million worldwide).
• 250,000 tennis courts exist in the U.S.
• 200 balls are discarded monthly by the average tennis park.
• Three new balls are used for most matches played.
• 100 million balls are dumped into landfills every year; and each takes 450 years to decompose.
• Limited options are currently available for recycled balls — they can be repressurized or ground into a powder that can be used in tennis court sub-surfaces.
• One person CAN make a difference.
“Today, in 2016, less than one percent of used tennis balls in the U.S. are being ground up and recycled," Dermody said. "The French recycle 10 percent, or more than one million of their tennis balls annually. Our goal is to get to 50 percent here in the U.S. by 2020. There is no reason this cannot happen. It requires two things: (1) awareness, and (2) convenience. We have to let people know, and then make it convenient to contribute,” he said.
Working with his wife, Sarah; his son and store co-owner, Peter; and several other individuals and organizations, Dermody invented the compact and highly visible AD-BIN® container, a recycling bin designed to hang courtside outdoors or indoors. The small business sells its invention under the brand Retour Tennis.
The green and white AD-BIN made of medium-density polyethylene is 34” high and 15” in diameter and weighs 40 pounds when filled with its capacity of 200 tennis balls.
“As tennis players, we were uncomfortable with the fact that we simply threw away our used tennis balls. Kept in our tennis bags and/or in our cars, we never knew which balls were good enough or dead, so, as a default, we tossed them all in the garbage," Dermody said.
“Golden retrievers, elderly with walkers, and schools with chairs can only do so much. In our tennis store we set out a ball collection basket for customers to throw old tennis balls into; the response was terrific. However, we had no place to send them.”
Today, the backend is now in place, said Dermody, with organizations such as Project Green Ball, a non-profit devoted to funneling used tennis balls to facilities where they are ground up to be part of new materials. Another company, reBounces, will provide pre-paid shipping labels to enable communities and clubs to send collected balls at no cost. Tennisballrecycling.com accepts used tennis balls to be ground up as a component in new tennis court sub-surfaces.
reBounces has recently partnered with Ace Surfaces N.A., Altamonte, Fla., and Advanced Polymer Technology, Harmony, Penn., to create a material from recycled tennis balls that can be used in tennis court construction and resurfacing.
“Our mission has always been to provide a cradle-to-grave solution for tennis balls,” said reBounces co-founder Cannon Fletcher, who spearheaded the project along with Ace Surfaces owner Franz Fasold.
Up to 10,000 tennis balls are incorporated into a single cushioned surface and can provide a 21 percent force reduction, noted Fasold. “By lessening the impact traditional hard courts have on a player’s joints, these courts will extend the careers of players of all abilities," he said.
Susan McDade, community services director for the village of Waunakee, Wis., volunteered her community to be one of the beta sites to test Dermody's AD-BIN product.
“We put a tennis ball recycling bin up on our park courts in May 2014, and got a steady stream of balls contributed all summer," McDade said. "The collection bin was easy to put up, attractive, and a positive ambassador for Waunakee's recycling efforts. We estimate about only 15 minutes of extra work every three or four weeks. It’s a small effort on our part to expand our village's recycling efforts,” she said.
Dermody estimates there are 20,000 facilities across the country that could be recycling tennis balls.
“What has been missing until now is the compelling front end that enables tennis ball recycling to become mainstream," he said. "We have closed the circle with the three steps necessary for successful recycling programs — (1) a courtside presence, (2) promoting the program and (3) collecting/reusing/recycling.”
The biggest reason so many tennis balls are consumed — more than 325 million are made worldwide each year — is that tennis players tend to use them only twice, Dermody said. “When they play, they open up a new can. The next time they play they use the previous new balls for practice and open another new can. That results in a lot of old balls in gym bags, thrown into garage containers or thrown away,” he said.
While some think recycling is a no-brainer, Dermody said it has not been easy selling the pros and the ball manufacturers.
“There is a reuse mentality among the pros who usually give them away or throw them out. Manufacturers have not shown a lot of interest. This isn’t at the top of their agenda because they don’t make a lot of money on balls. They are a commodity with the same pricing and the only differential is color, for example, pink versus yellow.”
Dermody added, “Retour Tennis is working to make all the pieces fit so that recycling will work in this country. I do believe at some point, there is a tipping point for this. It’s so easy to do.”