Published on June 4th, 2019 | by Sarah Dephillips


How Long Does it Take a Golf Ball to Decompose?

There’s no denying that golf is a popular leisure sport in the United States and Europe.  Golf courses are often criticized by environmentalists for their use of water, fertilizers, and pesticides.  Sure, one could argue, golf is green because golf carts are electric vehicles. But  Beyond Pesticides and other environmental organizations raise significant concerns about exposing participants, communities, and watersheds to chemical pesticides and fertilizers used on the course. In addition to this criticism, the sport came under fire about a decade ago for another environmental issue. Now the attention towards greening golf includes the golf balls themselves. How long does it take a golf ball to decompose?  Science says anywhere from 100 to 1000 years!

Golf balls take between a century and millennium to decompose.

Golf balls take between a century and millennium to decompose.

What’s the big deal?

It’s no secret that players often lose golf balls. Having lived on (and swam in) the Kaneohe Bay for some time, I’ve seen hundreds of them dotting the Hawaiian reef. Many of them are miles from the nearest course. Needless to say, they’re nearly everywhere! In 1971,  Alan Shepard even left some on the moon.  Golf ball litter is becoming an environmental concern on this planet. CNN reports:

Research teams at the Danish Golf Union have discovered it takes between 100 to 1,000 years for a golf ball to decompose naturally. A startling fact when it is also estimated 300 million balls are lost or discarded in the United States alone, every year…The scale of the dilemma was underlined recently in Scotland, where scientists — who scoured the watery depths in a submarine hoping to discover evidence of the prehistoric Loch Ness monster — were surprised to find hundreds of thousands of golf balls lining the bed of the loch.

What’s in a golf ball? More than meets the eye.

So what are golf balls made of? The majority of the material is plastic and rubber. Plastic, even when broken into smaller parts, is very persistent in the environment. They also contain other petroleum-based polymers and heavy metals, such as zinc. As they (very slowly) break down, they release these petroleum products and metals in the process. The heavy metal attaches itself to the ground sediment and can poison the surrounding flora and fauna, especially when in water. Other heavy metals used in golf ball production include tungsten, cobalt and lead.

There are solutions to the golf ball litter problem, as well as the pesticide use on the fairway.  Biodegradable, non-toxic golf balls are available. Perhaps land courses should follow in the footsteps of MARPOL treaty, which banned the practice of hitting toxic golf balls into the sea and requiring only non-toxic biodegradable balls on the course. This would be a step in the right direction.  While we can’t do anything about the golf balls left on the moon, (which have probably already degraded from the moon’s extreme temperatures), we can do something about the golf balls yet to be lost on planet earth.

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