Are Golf Balls Bad for the Environment

Are Golf Balls Bad for the Environment?

Last Updated on August 12, 2023 by Krystine

With over 300 million golf balls hit into lakes and oceans annually, these small spheres raise eco-concerns.

With plastic waste choking ecosystems, probing the problems posed by commonly overlooked golf balls empowers more informed, eco-conscious recreation.

A closer look dispels assumptions, revealing considerations beyond the tee box.

Are Golf Balls Bad for the Environment?

A golf ball underwater
Typical golf balls don’t break down easily or fast in the water, adding to microplastic pollution. Image Credit: Bridge Michigan

Yes, golf balls do have some negative environmental impacts primarily from their non-biodegradable petroleum-based materials which accumulate over time in ecosystems.

Manufacturing golf balls also relies on plastics derived from fossil fuels.

However, their durability means they likely do not leach significant chemicals.

And their small size prevents extreme physical harm to animals beyond potential choking hazards if ingested.

While not acutely toxic, golf balls contribute to plastic waste and microplastic pollution, indicating more sustainable materials are needed.

Key Points

  • Modern golf balls use plastic resins and rubbers which hamper biodegradation and accumulate long-term.
  • Over 300 million golf balls enter waterways and natural areas annually due to errant shots.
  • If ingested, balls may obstruct the digestive tracts and airways of wildlife that mistake them for food.
  • Evidence is lacking on toxicity from chemicals leaching, but microbial plastic breakdown remains an issue.
  • Developing more eco-friendly biodegradable balls could lessen waste impacts.

What Materials Make-Up Golf Balls?

Modern golf balls have solid cores of synthetic rubber or plastic, encased in injection molded thermoplastic urethane or ionomer blends.

The outer dimpled layer improves aerodynamics.

Historically balls contained balata, gutta-percha, or feathers.

But today’s mass-produced balls rely on polybutadiene, zinc oxide, titanium, and petroleum-derived polymers chosen for durability.

These maximize driving distance but complicate biodegradation.

How Do Golf Balls End Up in the Environment?

A golf ball landing in a lake
Roughly 300 million golf balls are discarded or lost in America alone every year, according to John Waddington, the founder of Golf Educate. Image Credit: The New Yorker

It’s estimated over 300 million balls are hit into ponds and water hazards on courses annually.

These either settle underwater or wash into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Errant shots also send balls into surrounding terrestrial habitats like forests and prairies, while driving ranges and backyard practice see balls scattered everywhere.

From tee boxes to local parks, golf balls easily enter untamed areas.

Can Golf Balls Physically Harm Marine or Terrestrial Wildlife Species?

While not acutely toxic, golf balls can obstruct digestive tracts or airways if swallowed by birds, fish, and mammals who mistake them for food.

This may lead to malnutrition, internal wounds, or suffocation.

Their rigidity also makes golf balls potentially injurious projectiles toward animals if struck by speeding balls during shots.

Overall though, threats appear relatively minimal besides ingestion risks and isolated blunt trauma.

Do Golf Balls Leach Harmful Chemicals Over Time?

Limited research is available, but chemicals seem unlikely to leach significantly given golf ball syntactic foam and polymer density.

However, degradation and microplastic release remain issues.

Zinc oxide is also mildly toxic to aquatic life.

True leaching risks are difficult to project given the lack of subsurface deterioration insights.

But occasional ball water contact seems less concerning than constant immersion.

Overall risks appear relatively low but require further study.

Could Biodegradable Golf Balls Offer Sustainability Improvements?


Some companies now produce balls with biodegradable cores and casings made from materials like latex, cornstarch, and algae.

These maintain functionality while decomposing far more quicker when discarded.

Plant-derived and waste-sourced materials also shrink ecological footprints compared to 100% petroleum-based balls.

However, costs remain higher currently, inhibiting adoption.

Mainstream viability requires scale.

Are Golf Balls Worse for the Planet Than Other Sporting Goods?

Likely no.

Compared to equipment like broken composite bats and abandoned sports nets known to entangle wildlife, durable golf balls seem less harmful by comparison.

They do not break down into sharp fragments.

And at just 1.5 ounces, a golf ball’s size prevents extreme toxicity if ingested.

Purposeful littering poses greater risks to animals and habitats than incidental scattered balls.

Overall other sporting goods probably cause more acute damage.

Do golf balls pollute the ocean?

Yes, golf balls do contribute to ocean pollution when hit with water hazards and not recovered.

Over 300 million golf balls enter oceans and waterways this way annually.

The synthetic rubber, plastics, and metals making up modern golf balls do not biodegrade quickly.

These materials linger for centuries, leaching chemicals and microplastics into marine environments as they slowly break down.

Golf ball debris on beaches and the seafloor provides evidence of this non-biodegradable waste accumulating over time.

The durability and resilience that provides optimal flight performance unfortunately also hinder natural decomposition, resulting in long-term pollution from wayward golf shots.

Is golf harmful to the environment?

Yes, certain aspects of golf can be detrimental to the environment.

Large water, pesticide, and fertilizer usage to maintain expansive courses artificially strains local ecosystems.

Noise pollution and habitat disruption occur from land clearing for courses.

Equipment manufacturing and shipping impact carbon footprints.

And lost golf balls leach microplastics into waterways and green spaces over decades.

However, golf industry groups argue courses support open space conservation, and some use recycled water.

Many facilities also aim to strengthen environmental management practices to enhance sustainability.

But overall, inherent golf course requirements and probabilities of stray balls still negatively impact natural areas.

Key Takeaways:

  • While golf balls have environmental impacts from manufacturing and waste, their risks appear less severe than larger, breakable sporting equipment when disposed of properly. Continued innovation promises advances in biodegradability.


How long does it take for a golf ball to biodegrade?

Most golf balls today do not biodegrade meaningfully due to their synthetic plastic materials. The petroleum-based thermoset polymers and synthetic rubbers may take hundreds of years to exhibit any decomposition. However, newer biodegradable balls made from materials like latex and rice decompose within 1-5 years under proper conditions. Traditional golf balls persist for centuries contributing to microplastic pollution as they slowly degrade.

Where do lost golf balls end up?

Lost golf balls hit into water hazards and end up at the bottom of lakes, ponds, and oceans. Balls hit into grasslands and forests end up incorporated into the local ecosystem as they slowly break down over decades or centuries. Ranges sweep up and reuse balls while courses do the same when possible. But inevitably, millions of balls annually become embedded in surrounding environments, especially aquatic ones.

Can golf balls be recycled?

Currently, most golf balls are not recycled, though some companies offer programs to reclaim old balls. The multi-layered construction complicates separating materials like synthetic rubbers, urethane, zinc, titanium, and resins. These composite materials make golf ball recycling economically unfeasible thus far. However, recycling may become practical in the future, especially for simplified biodegradable balls with fewer materials.

The team at GreenChiCafe is passionate about our natural world and preserving our planet for future generations.

Please check out our website for more content on living sustainably.

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