If you’re an avid tennis fan, you already know that the U.S. Open is taking place this week in Flushing Meadows, Queens. But have you ever wondered what happens to tennis balls after they have been used in major tournaments and in courts across the country?
Father and son Scott and Ben Soloway did and discovered that no one was recycling tennis balls in the U.S. The two founded Project Green Ball to find a solution. They ended up working with a company called IGK Equestrian that could grind up tennis balls to use in equestrian turf.
And it’s a low-tech way to benefit their community, since IGK Equestrian has agreed to donate equestrian turf to a therapeutic riding center for people with disabilities if the Soloways collect 200,000 tennis balls.
Not Impossible Now caught up with Scott Soloway to find out more about Project Green Ball. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q: What inspired you to start Project Green Ball with your son?
Soloway: My son and I play a lot of tennis, and we always have tennis balls around the house. One day my son was dumping a bucket of tennis balls, and he said to me, “Is there any way to recycle these balls?” And I said I don’t know, let’s look into it and find out. We spent a fair amount researching it and we really found nothing in the United States.
Q: How many tennis balls are manufactured each year?
Soloway: My understanding based on conversations with the Tennis Industry Association and Wilson Sporting Goods is that there are 300 million balls annually produced each year worldwide and 125 million balls are used annually in the United States.
Q: How did you find a low-tech way to recycle tennis balls?
Soloway: One day we were at my daughter’s school [the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Mass.], and they have an equestrian facility there. We happened to notice that the equestrian turf had a bunch of stuff in it. We took a closer look, and we realized that there were carpet fibers, rubber and other materials in the turf.
One thing led to another, and we were introduced to a group called IGK Equestrian, which is a manufacturer of equestrian turf. We learned that the turf was largely composed of sand, rubber and fiber. And we said to him, “Can we give you some tennis balls and would you grind them up and try to put them into your turf?” He was willing to give that a try, so we sent him 2,300 balls initially. He ground them up and sent me back some turf. He thought it looked great.
I brought it to Sarah Summers, who runs the equestrian program [at the Dana Hall School]. Sarah thought it looked great, and, in fact, she was looking to buy a new turf for one of their facilities, and they were very interested in taking a look at this ball-based turf because they liked the concept of recycling. One thing led to another, and Dana Hall ended up buying a ball-based turf from IGK Equestrian.
Q: How did Project Green Ball end up partnering with IGK Equestrian on a program for people with disabilities?
Soloway: We went back to IGK Equestrian and said that we’d love to continue to send balls your way, but you’re getting something free here, so we feel that you should give something back. And they said, “That makes sense to us. We’re willing to work with you.” We arrived at a number — 200,000 balls — that we would need to gather for IGK Equestrian at which point they would donate a turf to a therapeutic riding program for people with disabilities.
Q: How many tennis balls have you collected so far?
Soloway: Right now, we’re at a little over 194,000 balls.
Q: Helping the disabled seems to be an important part of Project Green Ball.
Soloway: We have some people in our family who are disabled, and we wanted to give back to those people. We’ve always been mindful of giving back to people with disabilities.
Q: What’s it like to work on Project Green Ball with your son?
Soloway: I’m proud of him. It was an opportunity for him to put together two of things that he’s most passionate about. He’s always been involved with community service at his school and other venues. And tennis has always been an important part of his life. He’s played tennis since he was probably three and competitive tennis since he was eight or nine.
For him to be able to put the two of them together was just a great combination. It’s a natural thing for him to do.
Q: What inspired you and your son to take that extra step? Other people probably would have just given up after finding out that there wasn’t a recycling program for tennis balls.
Soloway: I think we’re dumb enough not to know when to stop! (laughing). It seemed that there should be a solution for tennis balls, and it seemed that in various conversations that we were having with the tennis industry that we weren’t getting the answers that we thought we should we get.
Perhaps why it did work is that we weren’t in it to make any money. It’s too expensive to ship the tennis balls and to process them. And so it has to be done on a non-profit basis. That’s why we incorporated as a non-profit. And I’m proud to say that as of today Project Green Ball is a 501(c)3.
Q: It’s pretty clear that you and your son are avid tennis players. Who usually wins when you play each other?
Soloway: (Laughing) We don’t even play matches. We just hit against each other, because it would be so one-sided it wouldn’t be a lot of fun. And it would be one-sided in his favor!