STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ETS1.B

CCSS: Writing: 4

TEKS: 6.3D, 7.8C, 8.11C, E.9A, E.9B, E.9E

Golf Ball Cleanup

A California teen discovers tons of golf balls polluting the Pacific Ocean and gets a community to take action

ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED VIA GETTY IMAGES

TEEN TEAM: Alex (right) and her friend Jack Johnston would gather at least 500 balls every time they dove.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT how plastic might harm ocean ecosystems and what people can do to fix this problem.

Three years ago, 16-year-old Alex Weber was diving with her father, Mike Weber, when she spied something strange in the waters off Pebble Beach, California: golf balls. Tons of the hard plastic orbs cluttered the ocean floor. “There were so many, I couldn’t see the sand,” Alex recalls. “It really shocked me.”

“Back then, I didn’t know much about the problem of plastic in the ocean,” says Alex. “But I did know that those balls didn’t belong there.” Alex, her dad, and some family friends started a project to pick up the little spheres. On a typical dive, the group would gather at least 500 balls, which they’d load onto kayaks, tow to shore, and then haul to Alex’s house. She was troubled, though, by the fact that every time they dove, the seafloor they’d cleared on their previous visit was again blanketed with balls.

“The balls didn’t stop coming,” says Alex. That’s because numerous golf courses line that area of California’s coast (see Marine Sanctuary at Risk). Not only were decades’ worth of golf balls strewn on the ocean floor, but golfers sent more of them plopping into the ocean every day. Alex wondered why someone didn’t fix this problem. And then she realized she could be the someone.

Three years ago, 16-year-old Alex Weber was diving with her father, Mike Weber. She spotted something strange in the waters off Pebble Beach, California. Tons of hard plastic golf balls covered the ocean floor. “There were so many, I couldn’t see the sand,” Alex remembers. “It really shocked me.”

“Back then, I didn’t know much about the problem of plastic in the ocean,” says Alex. “But I did know that those balls didn’t belong there.” Alex, her dad, and some family friends started a project. They began picking up the golf balls. The group would usually gather at least 500 balls on a dive. They’d load them onto kayaks, pull them to shore, and then bring them to Alex’s house. But she was concerned. Every time they dove, she saw the area they’d cleared last time. It was covered with balls again.

“The balls didn’t stop coming,” says Alex. That’s because several golf courses line the coast. One is the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links (see Marine Sanctuary at Risk). Decades’ worth of golf balls lie on the ocean floor, and golfers hit more into the ocean every day. Alex wondered why someone didn’t fix this problem. And then she realized she could be the someone.

HIDDEN POLLUTION

Since Alex knew the source of the golf balls, she thought addressing the problem would be easy. She visited local links and told their owners where players’ balls were ending up. She suggested they take action, but the businesses didn’t seem concerned.

Alex, however, was growing more and more alarmed by the extent of the pollution. When her collection of golf balls reached 10,000—a whopping half ton of debris hauled from the ocean—she sought advice. She emailed Matthew Savoca, a biologist who worked nearby at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. Savoca’s research focuses on plastic pollution in ocean ecosystems—communities of living things interacting with their nonliving environments.

Alex knew the source of the golf balls, so she thought fixing the problem would be easy. She visited local links and talked to their owners. She told them where players’ balls were ending up and asked them to take action. But the businesses didn’t seem concerned.

Alex was growing more and more concerned by the amount of pollution. Her collection of golf balls reached 10,000. That’s a half ton of pollution pulled from the ocean. So she looked for advice. She emailed biologist Matthew Savoca. He worked nearby at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. Savoca studies plastic pollution in ocean ecosystems. These are communities of living things that interact with their nonliving environments.

THE PLASTIC PICKUP

Savoca was impressed by Alex’s dedication and by the fact that she had alerted him to a problem that he and other scientists didn’t know about. “It was surprising that Alex had discovered an enormous source of plastic waste that experts in my field weren’t aware of,” Savoca says.

Savoca went to see Alex’s golf ball collection and, right then and there, decided to join the cleanup effort. As the group worked, Savoca made sure they followed the scientific inquiry process, meticulously planning and documenting their endeavor. He told Alex that gathering evidence was the key to writing a research paper about their work. And if they published a paper, there might be enough public outcry to get people to change their behavior.

“There are golf courses all over the world,” Savoca says, “so this is a problem worth solving.” He estimates that 60 million people play golf regularly on approximately 34,000 golf courses worldwide. That creates a lot of opportunities for golf balls to end up in waterways.

Savoca was impressed by Alex’s hard work. He was also impressed that she had found this problem. He and other scientists didn’t know about it. “It was surprising that Alex had discovered an enormous source of plastic waste that experts in my field weren’t aware of,” Savoca says.

Savoca went to see Alex’s golf ball collection. Right away, he decided to join the cleanup effort. As the group worked, Savoca made sure they followed the scientific inquiry process. They carefully planned and recorded their efforts. He told Alex that gathering evidence was important. It would allow them to write a research paper about their work. And if they published a paper, it might cause a public outcry. That could get people to change their actions.

“There are golf courses all over the world,” Savoca says, “so this is a problem worth solving.” He figures that 60 million people play golf regularly. They use about 34,000 golf courses worldwide. That creates a lot of chances for golf balls to land in waterways.

COURTESY OF ALEX WEBER

NOT PLAYING: Seals and sea otters sometimes mistake golf balls for food.

HAZARDOUS MATERIALS

The golf balls that land in oceans, lakes, and rivers pose a threat to the organisms that live there. Waves, tides, and currents toss and tumble golf balls, wearing them down. “It’s like a grinder down there,” says Savoca. That’s why the balls Alex’s team removed from the seafloor were in different stages of decay.

The outside of a golf ball is made from a hard plastic called polyurethane (see Golf Ball Breakdown). As a ball’s outer shell erodes, it sheds tiny bits of microplastic into the water. “Marine animals mistake the small particles for food and ingest them,” says Savoca. Eating plastic isn’t healthy for the animals.

When golf balls land in oceans, lakes, and rivers, they create danger for the plants and animals living there. Waves, tides, and currents toss golf balls around. This wears them down. “It’s like a grinder down there,” says Savoca. So when Alex’s team removed balls from the seafloor, the balls were in different stages of decay.

The outside of a golf ball is made from a hard plastic called polyurethane (see Golf Ball Breakdown). This outer shell wears away and sheds tiny bits of microplastic into the water. “Marine animals mistake the small particles for food and ingest them,” says Savoca. Eating plastic isn’t healthy for the animals.

Once a golf ball’s shell disappears, its softer plastic core becomes exposed. Over time, the core also degrades into even more microplastic. Alex’s team estimates that crumbling golf balls along the Pebble Beach coastline have released more than 27 kilograms (60 pounds) of microplastic into the ocean. A golf ball’s core also contains chemicals, added to make the ball durable and flexible. The chemicals can be toxic to marine life if they leach into the water.

A golf ball’s shell finally disappears. Then its softer plastic core is uncovered. Over time, the core also breaks down into even more microplastic. Huge numbers of golf balls have crumbled along the Pebble Beach coastline. Alex’s team figures this has released more than 27 kilograms (60 pounds) of microplastic into the ocean. A golf ball’s core also contains chemicals. They’re added to make the ball strong and flexible. But the chemicals can leach into the water. Then they’re toxic to marine life.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

After two years, Alex’s volunteer crew had collected more than 50,000 golf balls. Alex, with her father and Savoca, co-authored a research paper about the project. It was published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, a major scientific journal, last January. The paper detailed the group’s research and the enormity of the golf ball pollution problem.

Two years passed. Alex’s volunteer team had collected more than 50,000 golf balls. Then Alex, her father, and Savoca wrote a research paper about the project. It was published in Marine Pollution Bulletin last January. That’s a major scientific journal. The paper explained the group’s research and the huge size of the golf ball pollution problem.

THE PLASTIC PICKUP

WHOA! Alex and her crew collected more than 50,000 balls.

The paper also outlined possible solutions. Measures like using signs warning golfers not to hit balls toward the shore and educating them about the ecological impacts if they do could prevent golf balls from entering the ocean in the first place. Golf courses could also commit to retrieving balls that do land in the water.

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

The paper also explained possible solutions. For example, signs could warn golfers not to hit balls toward the water. Golfers could be taught about the harm caused if they do. These measures could prevent golf balls from entering the ocean in the first place. Golf courses could also agree to remove balls that do land in the water.

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

OBTAINING, EVALUATING, AND COMMUNICATING INFORMATION: What steps did Alex follow to convince golf courses to do something about golf ball pollution?

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