The Sustainability Challenge of Tennis Balls

Category: Blog Date: 27 January 2023


While following the Australian Open currently underway in Melbourne, one of the four major tournaments of the tennis world, have you ever thought about the fate of tennis balls that are used and discarded during the tournament, and therefore, all over the world?


From a sustainability perspective, tennis balls are a source of shame. While the world has taken steps forward in all areas in terms of sustainability, tennis balls have not undergone any change in the past decades. From the laborious and resource-intensive production process to the very short lifespan, a single tennis ball has a centuries-long, heavy impact on our planet’s land and oceans. The fact that no better solution has been found to better sustain one of the most widespread sports in the world baffles many. The truth is that there are some solutions now, but few people either know or care enough about them.


So what exactly is a tennis ball made of and how does it cause so much environmental damage?

When you look into a tennis ball, you’ll see that it’s made up of two main parts: a rubber core and a woven felt covering that is fused together, machined and pressurised to ensure a consistent bounce every time a new box is opened. 

Of course, with such stringent quality measures come some environmental compromises. It is already widely recognised that mass rubber harvesting practices threaten protected forests and endangered species. In addition, since the balls must remain under high pressure until the game starts, the felt used for the outer surface is made of wool and nylon, a petroleum-based plastic. Finally, because recycled plastics leak pressure due to the microscopic holes they contain, the balls are sold only in thick plastic cans made from previously non-recycled plastic, which hold no more than three to four balls.

To summarise the production process, the supply chain can take a tennis ball 80 thousand kilometres and 11 different countries from start to finish. In other words, a life cycle that generates more than half a kilogram of carbon emissions for every tennis ball produced. Imagine that around 325 million tennis balls are produced each year and that it takes centuries for tennis balls to decompose. That’s 20 thousand tons of non-degradable waste every year. 

Unfortunately, once this incredibly resource-intensive production process is complete, we are able to utilise tennis balls for a relatively tiny amount of time. If you’re a tennis fan, you’ll be familiar with a can of tennis balls not performing the same within a few sessions of opening it. Even frugal players who extend the life of the balls typically get three to four sessions (10 hours) of optimum play out of a box of tennis balls. Then you throw them away without thinking about what they went through during manufacture, where to throw them, or what happens with every contact the ball makes with the racket on every stroke.

More serious players use new balls every session (2 hours), and this time is further reduced in professional matches. Professional tennis rules require six new balls every seven to nine service games (30 minutes). This means that during the course of a grand slam tournament such as Wimbledon or the Australian Open, some 54 thousand tennis balls are used in just two weeks. Even if we do not take into account the boxes in which the balls are packed, this means that almost three and a half tonnes of rubber and plastic end up in landfills, for just one of the hundreds of professional tennis tournaments held throughout the year.

The effect left behind by used tennis balls

Moreover, you might think that most tennis balls would be recycled and reused in one way or another, but this is far from the truth. Due to the industrial-grade adhesive used in the production process, tennis balls are designed as non-biodegradable, disposable, disposable products that cannot be recycled using traditional methods. So we can say that the life of a tennis ball actually begins when it goes to the landfill. Here, the rubber, which produces methane for about 400 years, decomposes into waste, releasing a powerful greenhouse gas with a warming potential more than 28 times higher than carbon dioxide. 

The negative impact of tennis balls is not limited to land. Although the oceans, home to about half of humanity’s primary food supply and producing half of the world’s oxygen, are vital to our livelihoods, every year a significant amount of plastic is washed into our oceans, polluting our waterways and affecting aquatic life. The biggest source of concern is the microplastics that break off from larger plastics and cannot be seen by the eye. 

Microplastics can break off from some types of plastics much more quickly than other types as a result of the abrasion they undergo. The usual suspects include microfibers of synthetic clothing fabrics that break away when washing, car tires whose plastic wears away and escapes as plastic dust when driving and tennis balls. The fuzzy outer layer of tennis balls is made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET fibres, which are also used to make water bottles. The microplastic fibres that break off the tennis balls after each stroke are released into the air we breathe and are blown by the wind into waterways.

Click here to read our blog post “Impact Investing to Cleans the Ocean: Blue Bonds”, which tackles the accumulation of plastic waste in the seas and oceans and the impact investments that prevent this.

What can we do to eliminate the ecological problems created by tennis balls for decades?

While it is disheartening to learn that tennis’ centrepiece has such a negative impact on the environment over its lifetime, there are solutions that, if implemented, can greatly reduce the carbon footprint of tennis balls. Firstly, empty tennis cans and lids, similar to plastic water bottles, are actually fully recyclable. Therefore, all players could be encouraged to at least recycle them when they are done.

In 2019, the Wilson brand took one of the first steps to make the tennis ball sustainable and introduced the new Triniti range, designed with sustainability in mind. Designed with a new elastomer core that keeps tennis balls fresh four times longer, the Triniti range balls do not need to be stored in pressurised boxes as well. While many serious players are struggling to get used to the idea of non-pressurised tennis balls, Wilson’s Triniti range has received rave reviews since its launch and was even used in a professional WTA event in 2019. Wilson has also announced that 5% of profits from Triniti balls will go towards the company’s sustainability efforts around the world.

The most prominent of these efforts is Recycle Balls, a US-based non-profit organisation that has emerged with the support of Wilson Sports, Project Green Ball and various organisations in the tennis industry. To date, Recycle Balls has collected tens of thousands of discarded tennis balls from tennis facilities across the US and converts the rubber core into materials for use in tennis court construction, recycled clothing and even the flooring of equestrian arenas.

Finally, taking the idea of a sustainable tennis ball one step further, Renewaball, a Netherlands-based initiative, has invented the world’s first fully recyclable tennis ball. The company has developed a technique to separate the felt on the outside of used regular tennis balls from the rubber inside. They first recycle the plastic outer layer to be used for another purpose, then take the rubber from the inner layer and use it in a brand new Renewaball. The outer layer of this new ball is made of 100% organic wool and cotton felt, and is therefore microplastic-free. 

With all this said, it is clear that current alternative efforts to mitigate the waste and pollution created by tennis balls are not enough at the moment. However, if the initiative is taken, we can see that the possibilities for recycling and diversifying the use of a product that once seemed impossible do in fact exist. The only real way to find a solution on a large scale is for the major manufacturers in the market to take responsibility for the environmental cost of their products and work together to develop standardised guidelines for sustainable tennis ball production use and disposal.