Did you know that over 100,000 tennis balls are used in an average grand slam tournament? And unfortunately, they cannot be recycled. Given the plethora of tennis matches played across the globe in an average year, we are talking about roughly 330 million tennis balls going into landfills annually. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Associated Press reporter, James Martinez, an avid tennis fan and player, who serves up some insight into tennis ball manufacturing, this waste issue, and some of the creative efforts to help solve the problem – and show the planet a little love.
Narrator 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
James Martinez (JM) 00:18 – You can’t win every match. You’re, you’re not, not always gonna play your best, but you do get a sense of satisfaction out of opening a new can of tennis balls. It’s like a fresh start, and it’s one of the great experiences of, of tennis, but there is a, there is a dark side.
Narrator 00:45 – Did you know that over a hundred thousand tennis balls are used in an average Grand Slam tournament? And unfortunately, they cannot be recycled given the plethora of tennis matches played across the globe in an average year. We’re talking about roughly 330 million tennis balls going into landfills annually this week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Associated Press reporter James Martinez, an avid tennis fan and player who serves up some insight into tennis ball manufacturing, this waste issue and some of the creative efforts to help solve the problem and show the planet a little love.
Alex Wise (AW) 01:54 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by James Martinez. He’s the Breaking News Investigations Editor for the Associated Press. He’s also taught investigative journalism at Princeton University. James, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
James Martinez (JM) 02:07 – Thank you for, uh, for having me.
Alex Wise (AW) 02:09 – I should have also mentioned that you’re a huge tennis fan and player, and you cover the US Open for the ap. The US Open just happened and you had an interesting piece that I wanted to discuss with you entitled “Tennis Ball Wasteland: Game Grapples with a Fuzzy Yellow Recycling Problem.” I never really thought about tennis balls being such a problem, but they are. Why don’t you expand?
James Martinez (JM) 02:34 – Well, they are, and that’s one of the, uh, the things that I, uh, look into when I cover the US Open. I’m not necessarily focused on the matches. We have sports writers who are very good at that. I kind of try to focus on, uh, the things that are going on outside the lines that maybe you haven’t thought about before. And one of them is this recycling problem that, uh, tennis has with its balls. And nearly all of the 330 million tennis balls made worldwide each year eventually get chucked in the garbage, uh, with most ending up in landfills, uh, where they can take more than 400 years to decompose. And that’s all because tennis balls, uh, by the very nature, are complex objects that are extremely hard to recycle, and the industry has yet to develop a ball to make that easier. And what’s more, tennis balls are one of these objects that are very complicated to make. And there’s a, a whole process in the factory. It’s a 26-step process to make a tennis ball, and yet they are thrown away very quickly. Uh, so this whole thing is a, a conundrum for tennis coming against the backdrop of the recent US Open.
Alex Wise (AW) 03:58 – Yes. I was surprised that in the article you mentioned that a grand slam tournament goes through a hundred thousand balls. That’s stunning.
James Martinez (JM) 04:05 – It is. And you don’t think about it because when you watch on television, you see the big stars play Kovich, uh, Carlos Alcaraz, and it’s say, oh, well this is just a, these are just a few matches. How can they go through this many balls? But you have to consider that the US Open is actually a three-week run. There’s a qualifying event for the first week. The main draws are in the, the next two weeks, men and women doubles, mixed doubles. There’s a junior event, there’s a wheelchair event. And so that adds up to nearly 100,000 balls over the course of the tournament. And that’s one of the biggest problems that tennis has, especially at this elite level, is they swap out the balls every, uh, seven to nine games. And so that translates into about, you know, it varies, but it translates into about 30 minutes of tennis, uh, for each set of balls. And they use six balls at a time. So every 30 minutes during the course of the tournament for every match, uh, they’re swapping out six balls. And that’s, that adds up.
AW 05:16 – So like a three set match that is like 6 4, 6 4, 6 4, that’s 30 games. So like a 30 game match would be around 24 to 32 balls then, is that right? Exactly.
JM 05:29 – And that’s just three sets. I mean, the men go, can go five sets and you can be talking, uh, 60 balls over the course of just one match.
AW 05:38 – Right. And when you go out to play recreationally, you kind of feel guilty opening up a fresh can each time, or a series tennis player when you’re playing a match, you’re not going to play with old balls. Generally, you want to eliminate that variable of, of whether one ball is a little more inflated than the other. Right,
JM 05:54 -Exactly. And that was one of the, the things that sort of got me interested in doing this story is I’m a tennis player and there are many different levels of tennis player. There’s very competitive players and their players are just starting out. But the thing I noticed, uh, just from playing tennis is, when I grew up, we opened a can of tennis balls. We played two or three times with that can of tennis balls. We just used them over and over again. My sense as a tennis player is that more people are coming in every time with a fresh can of balls.
AW 06:30 – I got that sense too. Yeah.
JM 06:32 – Regardless of your level of play, it seems like everyone just wants to have a nice fresh can of balls. And there is something really as a tennis player, and this is this, this goes to all levels of tennis. There’s something satisfying about the poof of opening a fresh can of balls. It it’s the optimum bounce, the optimum consistency, the optimum feel on the felt.
AW 06:53 – Even that smell!
JM 06:54 – And the smell. There’s a little chemical smell and it’s almost like a, a sense of this is a new beginning and tennis is so frustrating. You can’t win every match. You’re, you’re not always going to play your best, but you do get a sense of satisfaction from opening a new can of tennis balls. It’s like a fresh start. And it’s one of the great experiences of, of tennis. But there is a, there is a dark side.
(Music Break) 07:27
AW 08:14 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to AP reporter, James Martinez. So James, we were talking about recycling tennis balls and the struggles that the industry has with disposing of them. There are some nonprofits that are trying to take on this challenge. You write about RecycleBalls, such a Vermont based organization, they try to do around 3 million tennis balls a year. But you said there’s 330 million a year that are being made. So how scalable is the recycle balls model? Why don’t you give us a peek behind the screen of how they operate?
JM 08:53 – Well, one of the things that got me interested in this story is that there’s a lot of material online that sort of makes it appear as though, this is an environmental disaster that should discourage you from playing tennis. And the experts that I spoke with wanted to put that into a little bit of perspective. But there are pieces of good news, 330 million balls eventually make it into the garbage every year. Most of those go in, uh, to the landfill. But the piece of good news is that in the whole scheme of things, you know, with the millions and millions of, of pounds of garbage tennis balls actually make up a tiny fraction of all the garbage that is disposed of every year. That’s one bit of good news. The other piece of good news is that tennis balls, there can be a second life with tennis balls, and you can extend, the life of tennis balls in various ways. One by, um, if you are a serious player, you can pass them down to, to others who maybe aren’t so serious, who could get some use out of them. You could, uh, donate them to schools, which like to put them on the bottom of chairs to keep from, uh, scratching up the floors. You could, uh, uh, donate them to senior citizens’ homes with put them on the bottom of walkers and, and, and things like that. But as you mentioned, there are some more serious, uh, nonprofits around the world who are really trying to figure out a way to repurpose tennis balls on a grander scale. And one of them is this, this one you mentioned in Vermont, RecycleBalls out of South Burlington, Vermont. And, what they do is they distribute, um, boxes, that cities, uh, parks, universities, big tennis tournaments can put, at their courts. And when they fill up, they are postpaid and they ship them to Vermont where they do sell them for like dog toys and, put to put them on the bottom of chairs and whatnot. But they also grind up the balls and they grind up the balls, uh, hole with the felt and the rubber and everything. And they use that and sell it as footing for horse arenas and rodeo arenas, because it’s a, a gentler footing for, for horses and also they have a patent pending machine. It’s one of the few places in the world that actually tries to recycle tennis balls. They have a patent pending machine that rips off the felt from, uh, the rubber core of the ball and then takes the rubber, grinds it into granules and uses it in, in various, um, products such as, uh, a mulch material. And also, it sold, for use, uh, to actually make the lining of the underlining of hard tennis courts, which is kind of a bit of perfect symmetry. But the problem with, with RecycleBalls and places that try to recycle is, uh, there is no great market for, tennis ball rubber and the reason for that is the market for recycled rubber or re being able to repurpose rubber is dominated by tires. And tires have sort of an infrastructure of recycling. When you buy new tires, you, you, you drop your tires there, they, they get, they get into a place where they can be ground up into other things. There is no great market yet for, um, the tennis ball rubber. And that’s one of the things that RecycleBalls in Vermont is trying to do, is encourage companies to find other uses for tennis ball rubber. And they’re exploring such things as building materials such as stucco, siding, using the tennis ball, rubber, components in furniture so, that’s one of the things is they have a lot of balls that are being, uh, donated to, to be recycled, but they still need to work on getting a market for that, uh, material. They have some companies that are in that, but not as many as they’d like.
AW 13:53 – Now, is it just the infrastructure itself that differentiates tires from tennis ball rubber, or is it the material also is different?
JM 14:04 – It’s also the material. I mean, because for the most part, tires are a complete material rubber, whereas the biggest barrier to recycling tennis balls is that they are made up of, um, different components. The thing that is, is frustrating about this problem is that tennis balls, pressurized tennis balls substantially have not changed, since pressurized tennis balls came into, into vogue in the mid 1920s. So it’s essentially a, a felt outer covering over a pressurized hollow rubber core. And the biggest barrier to, uh, recycling tennis balls is that it’s very difficult to remove the felt from the, uh, rubber. That’s because the, they use industrial glues that keep it tight because when they’re hitting the ball, like they’re hitting it today, uh, you can’t have the cover flying off. Uh, so that’s good for tennis, but it’s bad for recycling. And that’s the biggest problem is removing the felt. Because the other problem is the felt is composed of a combination of wool and nylon. And because it’s a combined material, it can’t be recycled.
AW 15:29 – So like an organization like RecycleBalls has that patented machine that you talked about where they can remove the felt from the rubber core, but then they just throw away the felt?
JM 15:40 – Yes. Unless they, unless they grind it up and use it in that horse footing that I was talking about. But they throw the felt away when they’re going to use it for the, um, the granules, uh, that they, that, that they’re trying to form into other products. So it is, um, it is a quandary. And that’s, and that’s one of the things that, uh, uh, is under discussion by the industry and by tennis’s governing body. Is there a way to make a ball that would be easier to deal with that the, the felt would be a, a uniform material that could possibly be recycled, that it could be removed more easily, uh, that there would be more of an infrastructure to, uh, collect and recycle the rubber as it is now. There’s not, uh, there are, uh, very good organizations like this, RecycleBalls that we’re talking about and some other efforts around the world. France is very, uh, the French government is actually involved in helping to recycle tennis balls. But for the most part, what we’re talking about are well-meaning efforts, uh, that are a drop in the bucket when you consider all the tennis balls that are out there.
(Music Break) 16:59
AW 18:22 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to AP reporter James Martinez. So James, you mentioned how there’s some uniformity there has been for a century in terms of tennis ball manufacturing. Has there been any pressure from environmental groups or the recycling waste management companies or the industry itself? Is there somebody who’s trying to develop the holy grail of either the recyclable tennis ball or a tennis ball that retains its composition, so to speak? Or its pressurization longer than, than the current process that’s the standard?
JM 18:59 -Well, yes. I mean the International Tennis Federation, which is the worldwide, uh, governing body of the game, which comes up with the rules of tennis and certifies the balls. Um, it’s a very interesting organization. They’re based out of Paris, but they have a, a laboratory in, in London, uh, that is, uh, tests all the equipment, tests the balls has like artificial serving machine, and they have a, a technical, um, they’ve launched a technical working group at the International Tennis Federation to try to, uh, solve this problem. Um, and one of the things that they are looking at is, is there a way to design a fully, uh, recyclable ball? And they have brought together, uh, other tennis governing bodies for various countries that govern, you know, that, that govern, govern the, the tennis for various countries, manufacturers, uh, recyclers like recycle balls to try to brainstorm ways of solving this problem. And there are some hopeful signs. Uh, there was a, a Dutch company, uh, that has, uh, developed a ball that is made out of 30% old tennis balls. Uh, and, uh, it also has a, a felt cover, uh, that is all wool. So if you did pull it off, you could, uh, conceivably recycle that material. And, and the question comes up is, why is it only 30%? Why isn’t it not a hundred percent old tennis balls? And you, you’d be in business, right? It’d be a circular, um, process. But the, the quandary that the industry is, is dealing with is, uh, whenever you use recycled tennis ball material, uh, there’s always some impurities in it and you don’t get the playability, uh, that you would get with, um, the original rubber. Uh, and that is one of the, one of the other problems with tennis balls, uh, is that, uh, tennis balls at the top level, like the ones that they, they used at the, at the US Open are all made with virgin, newly created rubber, uh, rather than recycled material. And that’s because of the playability and the consistency that the top players demand.
AW 21:39 – And if you switch up a ball on a player who’s played with a certain standard of tennis ball their whole lives, that could really cause a lot of stir, right?
JM 21:50 – Right. But going the virgin rubber is a problem in and of itself because environmentalists say that it, you deplete it leads to deforestation in places like the Amazon where they harvest rubber. So that’s a problem in and of itself.
AW 22:07 – And then reusing the balls. A lot of people think of dogs chasing balls, and I’ve actually, I’ve read that it’s not good to give real tennis balls to dogs in terms of the fibers can harm their teeth and their gums there. So it’s better to use like these tennis ball copies that are made by the pet industry, right?
JM 22:28 Right.
AW 22:29 – But we can extend the life of these balls. You mentioned how the US Open is selling souvenir balls from that are used in the tournament. I don’t know how many they could sell, but if we can’t come up with a new tennis ball, maybe we can reduce that number from 330 million a year to half of that if possible.
JM 22:48 – Right. I mean, that, that’s what we’re left with until they come up with a solution, uh, to this problem. That’s what we’re left with. And, and that’s no small thing. The whole idea of, of reuse, uh, extending, uh, extending the life of, of any, uh, disposable product, is, is what the experts say. That’s the way to go but there are some, there are some positive signs that they’re working with. The ITF says that they’re, they’re having some positive, um, feedback from trying to repressurize flat balls in bulk to bring them back to life. Uh, that’s a solution that helps with the bounce, but it doesn’t necessarily address worn-down felt. Wilson, the sporting goods company, which is the, the supplier of the balls for the US Open, uh, has also a, a few years back introduced what they call a Triniti Ball, which is a still pressurized ball that has a sturdier core that leaks the pressurization less and has a tougher felt. And it’s designed to go out with four times at least without any loss of performance and that ball also has a complete cardboard, container that’s fully recyclable as well. So while the industry and Wilson was very frank, that they have not been able to come up with a fully recyclable tennis ball, they are trying to make innovations that would allow players to play with the same ball longer. So that’s one of the things that they’re doing.
(Music Break) 24:36
AW 25:40 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to AP reporter, James Martinez. So James, as a tennis player, I’m afraid to even ask this, but what about pickleball? Do those need to be pressurized as people look for alternatives to tennis? Is that a good alternative or is that just as wasteful? I know they’re made of plastic, right?
JM 26:01 – They are made of plastic and they’re essentially what we grew up with, uh, with the Wiffle Ball. It’s a complete solid, a complete piece of plastic that’s hollow in the middle. And it is, as I understand it, it is recyclable.
AW 26:17 – And probably last longer than a tennis ball. Right?
JM 26:20 – And I’m sure you can use a pickleball for a long time. But if you are considering an alternative to tennis for purely environmental reasons, then pickleball is better.
AW 26:32 – Really. Well, it’s a conundrum for me because I’m not a fan of pickleball in any way, shape, or form, but I do love tennis, and I don’t think people should be quitting this sport because as you mentioned, you know, it, it is a drop in the bucket. But as we add all these buckets up, it turns into an enormous waste stream. Not just tennis, but every time we drink from a plastic bottle or, or use a plastic container. we just have a disposable life. And, and any way we can reduce that is a good thing, right?
JM 27:03 – Right. And, and that’s, that’s one of the reasons that I embarked on this story is because if you look at all the material that’s out there online, there is a lot of alarmist rhetoric that sort of suggests that you’re doing a bad thing by playing tennis. But there’s so many objects in our lives, uh, that fall into the same category. Uh, golf balls, uh, ballpoint pens, etc., that are highly disposable objects. But the good news is that it is a, a very small percentage of, of all the garbage that’s out there. And as we’ve been talking about, there’s a lot of things you can do to extend the life of a tennis ball. And you can do that if you’re a tennis player and still feel good about playing tennis.
AW 27:52 – He’s the Breaking News Investigations editor for The Associated Press, James Martinez. James, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
JM 28:00 – I enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.
AW 28:16 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Rolling Stones, Cream, Binge and De La Soul. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream, or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.