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Sustainable tennis ball a hit at ASB Classic

A biodegradable tennis ball developed in NZ has the potential to change the game of professional tennis and grow a tree.

If you are fortunate enough to attend this year’s ASB Classic in Auckland and take a stroll through the on-site native forest corridor created especially for this year’s tournament, you will see a Sustainaball proudly on display.

This round fluoro ball may be small but if perfected to international professional tennis player standards, it could be the future and that is certainly what ASB, the bank behind the project, hope.

Believed to be a world-first, the Sustainaball is 100 per cent biodegradable with a native seed inside. This means if a ball does let lost over the fence or washed out to sea, when it comes back and starts to break down a native seed will be released and then hopefully a pohutakawa, pigeonwood or kowhai tree will pop up where it rests, says ASB sponsorship manager Jonathan Rea.

Earlier this week Rea and ASB Classic director Karl Budge helped tennis great Serena Williams plant a Sustainball in a pot.

“Hopefully in the coming months we can actually document the growth of the very first Sustainaball planted and one day replant the Serena tree out in the environment somewhere in New Zealand,” says Rea.

And while they’ve had a few hits with the balls at the ASB Classic, it’s too soon for them to be used in competition but the dream, says Rea, is to one day see this ball rolled out at the highest level of tennis.

“We’re using natural rubbers and wool which are all heavier. Currently tennis balls are made to a certain specification so tennis players notice a minute difference. The Sustainaball is a little bit heavier in terms of its weight but you or I as a casual tennis fan or dog walker wouldn’t really notice the difference,” says Rea. “The professional tennis player would notice the feel and the bounce of it is quite different because the inner rubber – natural and recycled rubbers that we have used – are different to the synthetic rubbers that traditional tennis balls are made out of.”

Aside from recreational tennis, dogs have also tested the ball so the current prototype is definitely fit for recreational use.

The ball took four months from concept to reality to produce and inspiration came from the insight that Kiwis love tennis balls. “We’re not necessarily a nation of tennis lovers but we are definitely a nation of tennis ball lovers. Whether it’s tennis, backyard cricket to dog walkers to using a tennis ball to massage out the sore bit after exercise. We use it a lot but we lose a lot of them, too,” says Rea.

Every year approximately 325 million tennis balls are produced, which contributes to roughly 20,000 tonnes of waste in the form of synthetic rubber that is not easily biodegradable. A normal ball can take 125 years to break down. The Sustainaball will break down in less than 10 years.

The Sustainaball idea was seeded by ASB’s creative agency WiTH Collective and has been developed in conjunction with Queenstown based 4Design and a third generation tennis ball manufacturer based near Wimbledon, London. 

Williams is already a fan of the ball and thinks it is a great idea according to Rea. “She hopes to take one back to the US and loved the idea of having a tennis ball grow a tree. She plants a lot of fruit trees, so I’m checking with Customs across her journeys on her way home back to the US to see if she is allowed to do that.”

Meanwhile the native trees lining the ASB Classic Forest Walk will be replanted in Auckland’s Domain by the Auckland City Council.

The bank has also partnered with Trees That Count and is offsetting the player’s flights. Plus, all freshly strung tennis racquets (normally wrapped in plastic) have been repackaged in recycled paper bags for the tournament.

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