Vt. Nonprofit Aims to Score Environmental Win by Recycling Tennis Balls

RecycleBalls operates a national ball collection network, and has found several uses for the rubber and nylon in tennis balls

NBC Universal, Inc.

A Vermont nonprofit is expanding its efforts to minimize waste dramatically in a place you may not have considered: the tennis court.

"I had no idea it was such a big problem," said longtime tennis player Derrick Senior, referring to the day he heard an estimate from the famous tennis brand Wilson that a few hundred million balls are bouncing into U.S. landfills every year. "That's 20,000 tons of non-decomposable waste."

Senior added that it can take 400 years for a tennis ball to break down naturally.

Senior, the former owner of a national cappuccino mix company, founded a nonprofit called RecycleBalls and came up with a machine that separates the fuzz from the rubber. The fluffy stuff becomes footing for horse arenas, and little chips of rubber are used in the construction of new tennis courts.

"Anything you can do to get more use out of any material is important," said tennis player Dave Simkins, who recycles his used tennis balls in RecycleBalls boxes inside The EDGE Sports & Fitness in South Burlington.

South Burlington is also the headquarters for RecycleBalls.

"It seemed, always, very wasteful," Simkins said of the short lives of most tennis balls, which he explained are often used only for a single outing before many serious players consider them trash.

"We're definitely making an impact," said Ryan Senior, Derrick Senior's son, who is helping RecycleBalls' effort to distribute collection boxes to gyms, parks, colleges and other tennis facilities nationwide.

The nonprofit provides shipping labels that send full containers back to the headquarters in Vermont.

Some balls get punctured, easing reuse on legs of tables and chairs as floor protectors.

"It's great that we can now make the process a lot easier," Ryan Senior said of the familiar way many schools have given tennis balls a second life.

Other balls are sold wholesale to dog toy manufacturers, helping to fund some of the nonprofit's work.

Derrick Senior thanked Wilson for its major support, which he said is part of the brand's effort to improve sustainability in the sport.

The Seniors told NECN and NBC10 Boston they are still developing a list of other ways to possibly transform the rubber and nylon from the balls they collect — maybe into footwear or fabrics — all from an object once considered not recyclable.

"There's a lot of waste that's created in this world right now," Ryan Senior observed. "It's important to look where you can, and make a difference."

The Seniors said they believe RecycleBalls is making that difference by diverting some 6 million balls from trash bins over the past four years.

"It's a start," Derrick Senior said, noting he aims to expand the organization's collection network internationally, exponentially growing the number of balls saved from dumpsters.

Over time, RecycleBalls hopes to score a big win for the planet.

"We are changing habits in this country," Derrick Senior said, adding that tennis players he has talked with are proud to be lightening the environmental footprint of their sport.

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