For retired businessman and Shelburne resident Derrick Senior, tennis isn’t just a hobby. It’s a sport that produces a lot of unnecessary waste.
“Every time you play, you open up a new can,” Senior said.
After doing some research in 2015, he was shocked to find that 125 million tennis balls are thrown into landfills every year throughout the United States.
That realization launched his nonprofit Recycleballs in South Burlington with the goal to recycle each of those discarded tennis balls into new materials by partnering with tennis facilities across the country.
It all started with a cardboard bin. With a background in marketing for the beverage industry and in the video industry before that, Senior designed a container to be placed near tennis courts for players to drop used balls. He made his first sketches on a plane ride.
“The bin is really the mainstay of what we do,” he said.
The containers are made following a patented design produced using easily foldable cardboard. Each is sent out with a prepaid U.S. Postal Service sticker so that once it’s filled with balls, it can be easily shipped back to Recycleballs at no cost to the participating tennis facilities.
In just a few short years, Recycleballs has signed on more than 900 partners. Last fall, national sporting goods giant Wilson Sporting Goods Co. got on board as a lead sponsor. Wilson said it hopes to help Recycleballs recycle 20 million tennis balls in the U.S. over the next three years.
The program costs nothing for participating tennis facilities. The clubs agree to make the bins visible and monitor them when they fill up. They can then claim the balls shipped to Vermont as a tax deduction. Recycleballs suggests a value of 40 cents per ball. A bin holding 200 balls then can generate an $80 deduction.
The partnerships started locally with the EDGE Sports and Fitness. Senior was able to share his program to a national audience at a United States Tennis Association conference in early 2017 and at a Tennis Industry Association trade show later that year.
Partners continue to sign on by word of mouth and through online connections. The company’s social media posts feature tennis clubs around the country with the signature Recycleballs containers.
With two tennis facilities in South Burlington and one in Essex, the EDGE remains Recycleballs’ main Vermont source of used tennis balls.
“We’re currently turning over about 1,500 balls every other month,” said Joyce Doud, assistant tennis director for the EDGE who manages the Recycleballs bins.
Players also contribute balls they’ve brought from home, she said.
The convenience of the “awesome bins” that sit courtside makes the effort efficient, she explained.
“All we have to do is fill them,” Doud said. “It’s a fantastic program to be involved with – recycling is huge and we should do more of it.”
Doud noted that it took some time for players to get used to putting used balls in the green bins rather than the regular blue recycling bins or trash cans at the clubs.
“But even if they put them in the blue bin, we’ll just take them out and put them in the green,” she said.
A patented deconstruction
Each day, a UPS truck arrives at the Recycleballs warehouse with a couple of pallets containing 24 bins each, holding a total of 4,800 balls.
That’s when the tennis-ball transformation begins using a large green machine, which takes up almost the entire length of the warehouse floor.
The 9,000-square-foot space was previously used by Senior’s beverage company Selection Unlimited, which he sold just last year.
The so-called “play-it-green” machine uses a one-of-a-kind recycling process where tennis balls are dumped into one end, torn apart until 99 percent of the felt is removed, with the remaining ball reduced to a fine rubber crumb.
The fuzz and what Senior calls “green gold” micronized rubber are spit out the opposite end of the machine which can process 8,000 balls per hour. It was designed with the help of summer interns from local universities.
From balls back to courts and more
The “green gold” has already been used to manufacture a number of products including tennis court foundations made by Advanced Polymer Technology Corp. in Pennsylvania. The company’s APT Sports website notes that two of its trademarked Laykold sports surfaces use recycled tennis balls:
“Finally, after a tennis ball has had its last bounce, it can be recycled and used again instead of rolling into a landfill,” the company states.
The tennis-ball material is also used in making signposts and is an ingredient in a new stucco paint product, Senior said, pointing to samples in his office.
Senior has a vision for a clothing line, with shoes using the compressed powder in their soles and fabric made into T-shirts.
He is still looking for ways to recycle the green fuzz and there are clues in the Recycleballs offices of where that might be headed. In the office lobby adjacent to the warehouse are a prototype teddy bear and a small pillow, both labeled as having been made with tennis ball fuzz.
Senior would welcome creative thinkers to help find new uses for the materials Recycleballs produces.
“We could use some help from volunteers – we need builders,” he said.
Imagine being kept warm by something that was once a tennis ball. Senior tosses out another idea he’s working on: using the fuzz to insulate homes.
These big dreams are so far run by Senior, his son and co-founder Ryan Senior, a small staff of three part-time paid employees, and a handful of local volunteers who Senior calls “champions.” “We do it on kind of a shoestring – I volunteer all of my time,” he said. “It’s only a few people right now, but we have the capacity for more.”
He said he considers his operation a “call to action” for finding a good home for something that can be so easily wasted.
“I want to invite [people in] marketing; students to come help,” he said in his office. “We’re always looking for new ideas.”
Changing tennis behavior
On its website, Recycleballs says it aims to recycle 3.6 million tennis balls by the end of this year. Six months into 2019, Senior said his last count was around 1.7 million balls.
The effort has received some national recognition too, having been named a 2019 Halo Award Finalist. The awards recognize North American corporations for social initiatives.
Senior is especially proud that a small Vermont operation is having an impact.
“It’s good to make a difference here in Vermont,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t use old tennis balls for something good.”
One day, Senior said he hopes that not a single tennis ball will be thrown into a landfill.
“Our business is to recycle, but we’re mainly an activist organization,” he said. “We want to change behavior, not just turn something old into something new.”
Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.