Article by Ken Belson, September 2, 2011, The New York Times

Tennis balls are the lifeblood of every match, and as ubiquitous as rackets, shoulder bags and sweatbands. But the cans they come in create a mountain of garbage that the United States Tennis Association is working hard to recycle during the United States Open.

Since 2008, the association has recycled nearly all of the estimated 20,000 tennis ball cans that are opened each tournament. The cans are collected by a recycler who separates the can, top and wrapper, which are plastic, and the aluminum rim.
The aluminum pull tops were considered too sharp to handle and were tossed out. But this year, the U.S.T.A. added separate receptacles for them so they could be properly recycled as well.

“Tennis balls and cans are one of the most essential pieces of the U.S. Open, so we wanted to make it a priority,” said Lauren Kittelstad, a senior manager who works on the U.S.T.A.’s green initiatives.

Recycling tennis ball cans might seem like a drop in the bucket compared with, say, the nearly 300,000 plastic drink bottles that were collected at last year’s Open, or the hundreds of tons of garbage produced over all.

But the tennis ball cans, in addition to being symbolic, are a challenge to recycle because they contain three types of plastics and an aluminum rim that must be pulled from the can.

Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who helped the U.S.T.A create its green initiative, said the association had “pioneered” the recycling of the tennis ball cans.

Achieving a nearly 100 percent recycle rate has been possible because relatively few people handle the tennis ball cans, according to Bina Indelicato, the U.S.T.A.’s environmental consultant. Before each match, umpires are given bags containing about 15 new cans with three balls to a can. On the court, they open the cans, take out the balls and put the cans back in the bag. After the match, the umpires return the bag to an umpire station, where the cans and tops are sorted into recycling bins. They are then collected by custodians and later hauled away by a recycler. The balls are reused at the National Tennis Center after the United States Open and are given to community programs. Some of the deflated balls are sent to schools and nursing homes, where they end up on the legs of chairs and walkers.

Jason Collins, the Global Business Director for sourcing at Wilson Racquet Sports, said that although it would be ideal to increase the percentage of recycled plastic in the cans, once they are made with more than 30 percent recycled plastic, they lose their pressure after they are shipped from the company’s factory in Thailand.
“You get leakage,” he said. “Think of it as microscopic holes. Virgin plastic is very clean. Recycled plastic has weaknesses. It’s like a slow leak in a tire.”
A slow leak in the can might not affect the balls immediately, but over time, they will lose their bounce.

The antidote, Collins said, is to switch to pressure less balls, which are not popular in the United States, or to switch to metal cans, which are twice the price of plastic cans. It has not helped that the price of rubber and wool, two key ingredients in tennis balls, has been on the rise, he said. “Because of the retail price of the balls, the common perception is that they can’t be that hard” to produce, Collins said. “But the cans are one of the most difficult products to make and recycle. The components can be recycled, but together, it’s difficult.”