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For bad (or frivolous) Michigan golfers: biodegradable golf balls

golf ball in the bottom of a river
Golf balls that find their way into lakes and other bodies of water are a significant source of plastics pollution. (Shutterstock)
  • Some golfers are bent on launching golf balls into lakes and waterways, a satisfying if environmentally damaging lark 
  • Typical golf balls don’t break down easily or fast in water, adding to microplastic pollution 
  • Now, a handful of companies are producing biodegradable golf balls, which dissolve after days or weeks

Have you ever stopped to wonder what happens to those golf balls that you used for driving practice out by the lake?

Roughly 300 million golf balls are discarded or lost in America alone every year, according to John Waddington, the founder of Golf Educate.

The Danish Golf Union also says that at the rate that they break down naturally, it puts them in a spot to be one of the largest contributors to water pollution globally.

Related: 

The issue of big water sources being polluted is not too far from home.

A 2019 investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that golfers at the exclusive Arcadia Bluffs course in Arcadia, Manistee County, were encouraged to hit balls into Lake Michigan at the 12th hole.

The large number of balls lost annually means microplastics are being introduced into waterways at an alarming rate, according to the Danish Golf Union.

Mitch Schols, the owner of Biodegradable Golf Balls, is one of a number of entrepreneurs with a plan to lower those numbers.

The company has designed and created exactly what you would expect from its name: biodegradable golf balls.

They are made of only two ingredients: corn starch and polyvinyl alcohol.

“Both ingredients dissolve in water and are also completely non-toxic,” Schols said.

They take roughly 2-3 weeks to break down once they hit the water.

A few other companies also produce biodegradable balls. They include Albus Golf, whose EcoBioBall wins style points for a core that releases non-toxic fish food as it dissolves which, the company touts, “opens up the possibility of practicing golf on cruise ships, beaches, jetties, seafront hotels and resorts, oil rigs, boats (and) yachts.” 

According to the Danish Golf Union, it takes a typical golf ball between 100-1,000 years to break down naturally in water.

Besides the obvious difference in ingredients, there are other major differences between biodegradable balls and your typical Titleist ball.

The primary use of the biodegradable golf balls is for driving practice where open water is the target, not playing a full 18 holes.

Unlike Titleist balls, these are single core. That means they don’t have the multiple variations of materials on the inside to make the balls fly as far.

According to Alex Scott, an environmental consultant for the UN, golf balls have a rubber core surrounded by more layers of rubber with a hard outer coat.

The multiple cores are where most of the problems reside when it comes to breaking down golf balls.

The layers of rubber that allow for the ball to fly further, be hit harder and provide an elastic effect are more difficult to break down.

“If you watch a slow motion video of a golf ball getting hit at a high speed, it will almost look elastic,” Schols said. “We’re working to get those multiple cores, and that’s what will be the game-changing thing.”

“These won’t compete with green use golf balls,” Schols said. “These are a novelty thing that you use to practice driving.”

The biodegradable golf balls produced by Schols’ company cost about $9.99 for three, $34.99 for 12, $49.99 for 24 and $199.99 for 96.

“We do wholesale, too, so after 1,000 they come out to be $1.35/ USD a ball,” Schols said. “Some people are wasting $5 a swing using other balls to practice driving.”

Although the company is currently selling primarily online, the goal is to continue expanding.

“The next step is getting into golf stores at golf courses,” Schols added.

Biodegradable Golf Balls is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and has expanded to the U.S. 

According to Schols, the market for what his company produces is a niche one.

However, few countries are looking into this issue.

“Our next big project is getting into the UK because there is so much golf in the UK,” Schols said. “That’s my big project for the next six  months.”

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