Whether you’ve seen it on a sports channel, driven by a course or played the game yourself, practically everyone knows what golf is. One of the oldest modern-day sports in the world, golf has been played on every continent and even on the surface of the moon.
Unfortunately, golf is also one of the worst sports for the environment. Affecting critical wildlife habitats across the globe, lost golf balls are infiltrating the most delicate parts of our earth’s ecosystems and infecting marine life.
We’ve got everything you need to know to make one of America’s favorite pastimes safer for endangered species with our pick of the best biodegradable golf balls.
Best-Of by Category
|Biodegradable Golf Balls
|Best for Beach Practice
|Best Eco-Friendly Option
|Lobster Shell Golf Balls
|Best for Conserving the Environment
|Manufactured Golf Balls
Golf’s Eco-Friendly Beginnings
Golf is one of the oldest modern-day sports in the world with it’s origins dating back to 15th century Scotland. The original version took place on sand dunes and involved hitting a pebble with a bent wooden club.
Golf quickly became a hit with it’s locational versatility and use of naturally found materials. People actually became so obsessed with golf that they started neglecting military training which eventually led to the sport being banned by the Scottish parliament in 1457. The ban was largely ignored, however, and in 1502 came back in full swing with King James IV becoming the first monarch to play the sport.
The Original Golf Balls
There were three types of traditional golf balls: rock, wood or feathery.
The rock balls were simply the previously mentioned pebbles and could be found almost anywhere. Generally these were used by families in the 15th century enjoying a lazy day at the beach.
Wooden balls came next. Made of beech or box trees, the balls were shaped, rounded and sanded down into spheres, though the sizes varied throughout the next two centuries.
Feathery balls were considered a more sophisticated and were certainly more expensive. Small, round leather pouches stuffed with goose feathers, these balls were crafted while still wet meaning that as they dried the feathers expanded and the leather shrank.
This gave them great flight characteristics but the time and effort to make one of these balls meant they were extremely expensive and only the wealthy could afford them. A single one of these traditional balls cost the equivalent of about $10 to $20 dollars today.
All three of these traditional golf balls were completely biodegradable.
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Manufactured Golf Balls
The next golf ball revolution moved away from eco-friendly options that started with the Gutta Percha Ball or Guttie.
The Guttie was made entirely from the dried sap of Sapodilla trees found in Malaysia. When heated, shaped into spheres and then cooled, the consistency of these balls became much like rubber. Being more affordable and flying much further than feathery balls, Gutties soon became a hit.
Finally, the first rubber-core golf ball, the Haskel, entered the game in 1898. Made with either a liquid or solid core that was wrapped in a long strand of rubber and then coated in sap, these balls laid the foundation for today’s high-performance golf balls.
Today’s golf ball manufacturers base their balls on the Haskel. Though many golf ball brands may vary, they all must meet the qualification standards set by the Rules of Golf which are governed by the US Golf Association.
New balls can include synthetic resins called Surlyn, urethane blends for the coating and cores that contain zinc oxide, zinc acrylate, or benzoyl peroxide which give the ball better durability.
But while these new golf balls are durable enough to stand up to iron clubs, they’re not so durable against time.
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Traditional Golf Balls: An Environmental Nemesis
We’ve all heard of people trying to hit golf balls as far as they can for the sheer fun of it. Whether they’re driving them off of cliffs or into the ocean, little thought is given to the balls once they disappear from sight. But although you can’t see them anymore, the balls are still there where they landed, slowly decomposing over the next 100 to 1,000 years.
As golf balls decompose, everything they’ve been made of seeps into the environment around them. While the wooden balls of the past will naturally become part of the ecosystem, today’s high-performance golf balls leach microplastics and toxic metals like zinc into their surroundings, polluting the environment.
It is currently estimated that over 300 million golf balls are lost every year in the United States alone. As we begin to understand the scope of this problem (and we are only in the beginning) it’s quickly becoming apparent that biodegradable golf balls are critical to both the environment and the future of the sport.
It’s impossible to mention biodegradable golf balls without first mentioning Alex Weber: the entire reason that biodegradable options exist today.
In 2016, Alex, a 16-year-old scuba and free diver asked her dad to drive her to a section of the coast near Pebble Beach Golf Course in California. While diving they were stunned to see thousands of golf balls rolling over the seafloor below them.
Everyone in the area knew that there were balls in the water off the coast but the scale of the issue wasn’t known and, as the old saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.”
But as Alex observed marine life swimming in a sea of golf balls she knew they had to do something.
Over the next two years, Alex and her dad started The Plastic Pick-up, an environmental cleaning project they created to clear as many balls off the ocean floor as possible. They collected over 50,000 golf balls by hand, hauling them back to shore in kayaks and storing them in their garage in plastic drums.
The smell of the stored balls, however, was horrendous leading Alex to contact Matthew Savoka, a researcher at Stanford University.
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Assessing The Environmental Damage
While researching possible causes for the terrible smell, Alex came across the research of Matthew Savoka and put two and two together.
Matthew’s research focused on a compound called dimethyl sulfide (DMS) which is found in plants and produces a rotten egg smell. DMS is also a sensory food trigger for many fish and animals signaling that an item can be eaten.
Unfortunately, plastics that end up in our oceans and other water sources absorb DMS over time, essentially making them smell like food to some species.
Matthew and Alex teamed up to co-author a research study to the Marine Pollution Bulletin that detailed the impact of golf balls on coastal ecosystems.
Their study found that the zinc oxide and zinc acrylate found in today’s golf balls are extremely toxic in aquatic environments. As the plastic coatings of the balls decompose into irretrievable microplastic pieces they both end up in fish and crustaceans and release the heavy metals into the surrounding environment, further triggering the stress responses of these creatures. Long term exposure could directly affect local ecosystem biodiversity.
But the zinc isn’t the only problem. The rubber coils found inside golf balls are almost 300 feet long which, when released, can be extremely dangerous to larger marine life in the area. In one instance, Alex had to use a knife underwater to cut herself free from a loop of golf ball rubber.
See Related: How Do Animals Adapt To Their Environment?
Enter The Biodegradable Golf Ball
Traditional golf balls litter the surface of our earth, the bottoms of oceans and even the moon. As we further understand the detrimental effects the sport can have on the environment, clean-up efforts are growing and a new, biodegradable golf ball is emerging.
True biodegradable golf balls must be able to fully decompose quickly (typically in aquatic environments or rainwater) and must not contain plastics or any toxic substances such as heavy metals.
An interesting and somewhat controversial factor of new biodegradable golf balls is that several include fish food.
Fish food inside of a biodegradable golf ball certainly sounds beneficial but the added nitrogen and phosphorous compounds that are released can alter the pH levels of an aquatic ecosystem depending on the amount released. It is suggested by environmentalists to be wary of added fish food as their impact is still being studied.
See Related: 10 Ways to Help the Environment in Everyday Life
Biodegradable VS. Eco-Friendly Golf Balls
As the research behind the environmental impact of traditional golf balls is still underway, biodegradable options are a new and emerging market. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the difference between a truly biodegradable ball and an eco-friendly golf ball.
Most eco-friendly golf balls available today are made of recycled materials but still include plastics.
For example, the Dixon Wind Eco-Friendly Max Distance Golf Balls are made entirely from reprocessed materials so their manufacturing impact is minimal. For the golf ball core, the brand uses heavy salts instead of heavy metals.
However, it is important to note that the reprocessed materials include plastics that will still break down in aquatic environments and absorb DMS the longer they are submerged. Additionally, while the heavy salts are non-toxic, it is possible that they could increase the salinity of the area they’re left in.
Eco-friendly golf balls are still a great option, just make sure to collect them all and recycle them when they’re no longer needed.
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The 3 Best Biodegradable Golf Balls
Yes, that’s seriously both the name of this company and their balls!
Biodegradable Golf Balls, a Canadian company, created their biodegradable golf balls out of corn starch with a polyvinyl alcohol coating (a water-soluble polymer that is not plastic) to stand up to your swing.
They begin decomposing within 24 hours of being exposed to water and will completely dissolve within a few weeks.
There are no heavy metals, no plastics, and no fish foods which means zero impact on the environment.
This is a golf ball that you can launch off the dock guilt-free.
This golf ball is also 100% biodegradable and contains fish food.
Based in Barcelona, Spain, this company has tested their biodegradable golf balls through a 3rd party to verify that they meet OECD Testing Standards for zero toxicity.
Designed exclusively for marine environments, this golf ball starts to break down immediately when submerged in water and within 24 hours the coating of the ball starts to dissolve. Within 48 hours the entire golf ball will dissolve, releasing the fish food core.
3. Lobster Shell Golf Balls
While not on the market yet, University of Maine researchers teamed up with The Lobster Institute to develop a golf ball made entirely of natural lobster shells.
Their product would utilize the byproducts of canned lobster that are typically disposed of in landfills.
By repurposing traditionally unusable lobster shells, these biodegradable golf balls wouldn’t just naturally decompose but would also help reduce waste and repurpose marine materials. Hopefully, we’ll see these environmentally friendly golf balls on shelves soon!
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