Student View

Alex and her friend Jack Johnston used kayaks to tote the balls to shore.

YOUR WORLD

Golf Ball Cleanup

How a California teen led a team to remove golf balls from the Pacific Ocean

Four years ago, Alex Weber was diving with her father in the waters off Pebble Beach, California. Suddenly, she spotted something strange: thousands of golf balls! The hard plastic spheres cluttered the ocean floor.

Alex, who was 16 at the time, was alarmed by the trash. So she, her dad, and some friends began collecting the balls. Each time they dove, the group removed at least 500 of them. But when they returned, the seafloor would be blanketed with balls again. “They didn’t stop coming,” says Alex. 

That’s because golf courses line that area of California’s coast. The golfers playing there had been hitting balls into the ocean every day for decades. Alex wondered: Why wasn’t someone fixing the problem? Then she realized that she could be that someone.

Pieces of Plastic

Once Alex knew the source of the golf balls, she thought fixing the problem would be easy. She visited local golf courses and told the owners where their balls were ending up. But the businesses didn’t seem concerned.

So Alex emailed Matthew Savoca. He’s a biologist at Stanford University who studies how plastic pollution affects ocean life. Savoca had never heard of the problem of golf ball pollution. But when he saw Alex’s massive golf ball collection, he decided to join her cleanup effort. 

Alex Weber (right) and a team of volunteers dove underwater to collect the balls.

The outside of a golf ball is made of hard plastic (see Golf Ball Breakdown, below). In the ocean, it wears down, shedding tiny plastic bits called microplastics. “Marine animals mistake the particles for food and eat them,” says Savoca. That can harm or kill the animals.

Savoca estimated that the balls they collected over two years had released more than 27 kilograms (60 pounds) of microplastics into the ocean. The cores of some balls also contain chemicals that can be toxic to marine life.

Marine animals like seals can mistake golf balls for food.

Spreading the Word

As Alex’s team collected the balls, Alex carefully documented the work. Gathering evidence would help them write a research paper about the project, Savoca explained. The paper might convince people to care enough about the problem to help fix it.

In total, Alex and her crew collected more than 50,000 golf balls! Alex worked together with her father and Savoca to write a research paper about the project. In January 2018, it was published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, a major scientific journal. 

Golfing on the Coast

This map shows the large golf courses on the coast of the Monterey Peninsula in California. The surrounding waters teem with wildlife, including sea lions, dolphins, whales, and sea turtles, and have been designated a marine sanctuary.

The paper suggested some solutions for the problem. For instance, golf courses could use signs warning golfers to hit balls away from the shore. They could educate golfers about golf ball pollution. Golf courses could also work to retrieve the balls from the water.

Alex presented her findings to the local golf courses. This time, the owners paid attention. Now they’re cleaning up their act. It’s amazing what a determined kid can do!

Golf Ball Breakdown

Over time, the ocean waves and currents wear down golf balls. As these balls degrade, they release bits of plastic into the water. Here’s how part of the process can occur.

Stage 1

The plastic exterior of a new golf ball is shiny and dimpled. 

Stage 2

First, the glossy plastic surface wears away. Some dimples remain.

Stage 3

Over time, the hard plastic chips off to reveal a rubber core.

Think: What might happen to the golf ball in later stages?

Continue the Learning Journey
VIDEO
What You Need to Know About Plastic Pollution

Watch a video about the harmful effects of plastic pollution.

After watching the video, think about how you can reduce plastic pollution. Walk around your house and see how many single-use plastic items you find. Then design an action plan to cut back on plastic. For example, you might switch from plastic water bottles to a reusable water bottle, use paper or bamboo straws instead of plastic ones, and use tote bags instead of plastic bags. Share your plan with your family and see what they think. Is there anything else you can do as a family to reduce your plastic waste?

There are a lot of ways to reuse or recycle plastic. Collect plastic items that would have been thrown away in your home and use them to create a sculpture, a collage, jewelry, or another creative artwork or project. Then put together an art exhibit about plastic pollution. Think about:

  • What do you want your exhibit to teach people? 
  • How will your art project help people learn about plastic pollution? 
  • What interesting facts, photos, and illustrations should you include in your exhibit? 

Present your art exhibit to friends or family members! Then ask them what they learned about plastic pollution.

Alex Weber noticed a pollution problem when she was enjoying the outdoors. Now it’s your turn! Take a walk in your neighborhood with a family member. Discuss these questions while you walk:

  • What plants and animals do you see? 
  • Do you observe any plastic pollution?
  • How could plastic trash affect plants or animals? 

If you noticed a lot of litter, organize a community cleanup day! Try to involve your neighbors by creating posters or flyers to advertise the event and why it’s important.

SLIDESHOW
Sink or Float?

Test whether different plastic objects sink or float in water.

Golf balls wear away over time after sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Do all plastic objects sink in water? Or do some float? Check out the slideshow above for a science investigation. You will need a large container (like a bucket or pot), water, several plastic objects (like an empty food container, a toy, or a plastic wrapper), a big spoon, and a timer. Get ready for some science fun!

This article was written by Kimberly Y. Masibay for Scholastic SuperScience magazine.

Image Credits: Shutterstock.com (undamaged golf ball); Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images (other golf balls); Jim McMahon (map); Courtesy Alex Weber (seal); Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images (divers); Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images (Alex and Jack)