Czech start-up gives new life to used tennis balls

Tennis is hugely popular but it also leaves behind a substantial amount of rubbish in the form of used tennis balls that take hundreds of years to decompose. A Czech start-up is looking at ways to keep the fuzzy yellow balls out of landfills by giving them a new purpose.

An estimated 400 million tennis balls are produced worldwide each year. Grand Slam events such as the recently ended Australian Open go through over 50,000 balls over the course of the tournament. Most of the rubber balls eventually end up in landfills, where they take more than 400 years to decompose.

While that might present only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of tons of garbage produced every year, experts are trying to find ways how to keep them out of the environment, making tennis more sustainable.

One such project is a Czech start-up called Dropp, which focuses on recycling tennis balls, founded by Vít Gloser. He travels around tennis clubs all over the country, collecting the fuzzy yellow balls, processing them in a shredder and using the material for creating new products.

Vít Gloser | Photo: Dropp

“Last year we collected 150,000 tennis balls from all over the country, which is basically almost ten tons of waste material. We use the yellow felt for flooring in horse-riding halls, and the rubber for making shoe soles.

“We are still not sure what to do with the yellow melton, so that is still a work in progress. I have just been to the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design and left them a bag to see if they could think of something.”

One of Vít Gloser’s regular stops on the tennis ball route is the Aritma tennis club in Prague’s district of Vokovice, which was among the first to join the project. Ivan Petr is a local coach and management member:

“We thought it was a very good idea, because the number of balls that pass through our club every year is really huge.”

While amateur tennis is one of the sports with a very low carbon footprint, the fuzzy yellow balls are still quite problematic, explains Vít Gloser:

“We have calculated that here in Czechia the “lifespan” of a tennis ball is between twelve to twenty hours. Its carbon footprint, from its production in Asia through its transport to Europe, is huge. The five minutes it spends at Wimbledon leaves behind a significant mark.”

In the Netherlands, experts are already testing a total recycling of tennis balls which means making new ones directly from the old ones. However, their quality is far from ideal, says Mr. Gloser:

“I think these recycled balls could be sufficient for amateur players, but they are not good enough for professionals. Nevertheless, there is an effort to achieve complete circularity.

“Our team's technologist thinks it is not possible to achieve, but as you can see, the Dutch have already taken the first step. So I hope it will be possible to make tennis even more environmentally-friendly.”