Quantcast

A Teen Scientist Helped Me Discover Tons of Golf Balls Polluting the Ocean

Insights + Opinion
Teenager Alex Weber and friends collected nearly 40,000 golf balls hit into the ocean from a handful of California golf courses. Alex Weber / CC BY-ND

By Matthew Savoca

Plastic pollution in the world's oceans has become a global environmental crisis. Many people have seen images that seem to capture it, such as beaches carpeted with plastic trash or a seahorse gripping a cotton swab with its tail.

As a scientist researching marine plastic pollution, I thought I had seen a lot. Then, early in 2017, I heard from Alex Weber, a junior at Carmel High School in California.


Alex emailed me after reading my scientific work, which caught my eye, since very few high schoolers spend their time reading scientific articles. She was looking for guidance on an unusual environmental problem. While snorkeling in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary near the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Alex and her friend Jack Johnston had repeatedly come across large numbers of golf balls on the ocean floor.

As environmentally conscious teens, they started removing golf balls from the water, one by one. By the time Alex contacted me, they had retrieved over 10,000 golf balls—more than half a ton.

Dense aggregations of golf balls littering the sea floor in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, CaliforniaAlex Weber, CC BY-ND

Golf balls sink, so they don't become eyesores for future golfers and beachgoers. As a result, this issue had gone largely unnoticed. But Alex had stumbled across something big: a point source of marine debris—one that comes from a single, identifiable place—polluting federally protected waters. Our newly published study details the scope of this unexpected marine pollutant and some ways in which it could affect marine life.

Cleaning Up the Mess

Many popular golf courses dot the central California coast and use the ocean as a hazard or an out-of-bounds. The most famous course, Pebble Beach Golf Links, is site of the 2019 U.S. Open Championship.

Alex wanted to create a lasting solution to this problem. I told her that the way to do it was to meticulously plan and systematically record all future golf ball collections. Our goal was to produce a peer-reviewed scientific paper documenting the scope of the problem, and to propose a plan of action for golf courses to address it.

Alex, her friends and her father paddled, dove, heaved and hauled. By mid-2018 the results were startling: They had collected nearly 40,000 golf balls from three sites near coastal golf courses: Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and the Carmel River Mouth. And following Alex's encouragement, Pebble Beach employees started to retrieve golf balls from beaches next to their course, amassing more than 10,000 additional balls.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston collecting golf balls from the sea floorAlex Weber, CC BY-ND

In total, we collected 50,681 golf balls from the shoreline and shallow waters. This represented roughly 2.5 tons of debris—approximately the weight of a pickup truck. By multiplying the average number of balls lost per round played (1 to 3) and the average number of rounds played annually at Pebble Beach, we estimated that patrons at these popular courses may lose more than 100,000 balls per year to the surrounding environment.

A harbor seal investigates a member of the golf ball recovery team. Alex Weber, CC BY-ND

The Toxicity of Golf Balls

Modern golf balls are made of a polyurethane elastomer shell and a synthetic rubber core. Manufacturers add zinc oxide, zinc acrylate and benzoyl peroxide to the solid core for flexibility and durability. These substances are also acutely toxic to marine life.

When golf balls are hit into the ocean, they immediately sink to the bottom. No ill effects on local wildlife have been documented to date from exposure to golf balls. But as the balls degrade and fragment at sea, they may leach chemicals and microplastics into the water or sediments. Moreover, if the balls break into small fragments, fish, birds or other animals could ingest them.

The majority of the balls we collected showed only light wear. Some could even have been resold and played. However, others were severely degraded and fragmented by the persistent mechanical action of breaking waves and unremitting swell in the dynamic intertidal and nearshore environments. We estimated that more than 60 pounds of irrecoverable microplastic had been shed from the balls we collected.

A sea otter holding a golf ball at one of our study sitesAlex Weber, CC BY-ND

Game-Changer

Thanks to Alex Weber, we now know that golf balls erode at sea over time, producing dangerous microplastics. Recovering the balls soon after they are hit into the ocean is one way to mitigate their impacts. Initially, golf course managers were surprised by our findings, but now they are working with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to address the problem.

Alex is also working with managers at the sanctuary to develop cleanup procedures that can prevent golf ball pollution in these waters from ever reaching these levels again. Although her study was local, her findings are worrisome for other regions with coastal golf courses. Nonetheless, they send a positive message: If a high school student can accomplish this much through relentless hard work and dedication, anyone can.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Ryan Hagerty / USFWS

It's become a familiar story with the Trump administration: Scientists write a report that shows the administration's policies will cause environmental damage, then the administration buries the report and fires the scientists.

Read More Show Less
Valerie / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A coalition of some of the largest environmental groups in the country joined forces to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Trump administration's maneuver to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
beyond foto / Getty Images

By Kimberly Holland

Children who eat a lot of gluten in their earliest years may have an increased risk of developing celiac disease and gluten intolerance, according to a new study published in JAMATrusted Source.

Read More Show Less
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Calling the global climate crisis both the greatest threat facing the U.S. and the greatest opportunity for transformative change, Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled today a comprehensive Green New Deal proposal that would transition the U.S. economy to 100 percent renewable energy and create 20 million well-paying union jobs over a decade.

Read More Show Less
orientalizing / Flickr

The Parties to CITES agreed to list giraffes on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) today at the World Wildlife Conference or CoP18 in Geneva. Such protections will ensure that all giraffe parts trade were legally acquired and not sourced from the poached giraffes trade and will require countries to make non-detriment findings before allowing giraffe exports. The listing will also enable the collection of international trade data for giraffes that might justify greater protections at both CITES and other venues in the future.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

The WHO stressed that more research is needed on the potential health risks of microplastic ingestion. luchschen / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The UN's health agency on Thursday said that microplastics contained in drinking water posed a "low" risk at their current levels.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) — in its first report on the potential health risks of microplastic ingestion — also stressed more research was needed to reassure consumers.

Read More Show Less

Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is giving President Trump a run for his money in the alternative facts department.

Read More Show Less
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee delivered his 2019 State of the State address on Jan. 15. Governor Jay and First Lady Trudi Inslee / Flickr

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who made solving the climate crisis the center of his presidential campaign, is dropping out of the 2020 Democratic primary race.

Read More Show Less