Alex Weber is no ordinary 18-year-old. Since spring 2016, she’s collected around 50,000 golf balls from the oceans surrounding Carmel Bay in California. It’s part of her effort to clean up a mess that presumably stems from years of golfing at nearby courses.

Born into a family of scuba divers, Weber, who studies at Cabrillo Community College, calls herself an ocean kid. “It’s all just a huge natural high for me,” she tells Medium. To keep her beloved beaches pollution-free, she frequently carries out clean-ups to remove microplastics that wash up on the beaches from large ocean swells.

One day in May 2016, Weber and her father decided to go free diving off the coast of their local beach. “What we came across was the entire sea floor was covered in golf balls,” Weber recalls. “There were thousands of golf balls in every crack and crevice — I immediately felt sick to my stomach.”

Photo: Alex Weber

The next time Weber and her father went diving, they collected around 2,000 golf balls. “Being a human,” she says, “I felt responsible for cleaning up the mess that we created.”

The pattern continued: every time the duo went diving, they gathered between 500 and 5,000 golf balls. Between May 2016 and June 2018, the Webers retrieved 50,000 golf balls in total, equaling around 2.5 tons of debris, roughly equivalent to the weight of a pickup truck. The father-daughter team have now co-authored a scientific paper, recently published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, describing the scope of the problem.

“The amount of golf balls we were able to pull out of the ocean on a regular basis and the rate at which the ocean could refill the sea floor with golf balls was so astonishing,” Weber adds. “That’s definitely what kept me going — the fact that the balls didn’t stop coming.”

Now known as the “Plastic Pickup Team,” Weber and her father go on dives whenever the weather conditions allow, usually about six months out of the year. Sometimes, they spend up to 10 hours collecting golf balls. In late 2016, Weber contacted Matthew Savoca, a marine ecologist at Stanford University who has studied why ocean animals eat plastic, and asked if he could help her conduct a study quantifying the local golf ball waste.

After learning about the scale of Weber’s work, Savoca was dumbfounded. “Everyone that I have spoken to are shocked that it’s even an issue,” he says. Savoca is the third author of the Marine Pollution Bulletin study.

The solid core of golf balls contain zinc oxide and zinc acrylate, which enhance the balls’ durability and flexibility. But both compounds are considered toxic in aqueous environments, and have been shown to activate stress responses in fish, algae, and crustaceans.

It’s unclear how many golf balls are lost globally every year, but one estimate suggests the annual figure could be as high as 300 million in the United States alone.

After collecting the tens of thousands of golf balls, the Webers and Savoca sorted the balls into five categories that rated the balls on their erosion levels. The categories ranged from stage one balls — which means the balls are in playable condition with an intact polyurethane coating — to stage five, where the inner core of the balls is visible. According to Savoca, around 10 percent of the collected balls were severely worn down. By calculating how much the balls had degraded, the authors predicted that the collected golf balls have given off around 28 kilograms of fragmented synthetic material to the oceans.

It’s unclear how many golf balls are lost globally every year, but one estimate suggests the annual figure could be as high as 300 million in the United States alone. Even so, golf balls are a tiny percentage of the eight million tons of plastic humans dump into the oceans every year. Some predictions suggest that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

But at the local level — in Carmel Bay, for instance — golf balls may be the most significant contributor of marine plastic, Savoca says. The exact chemicals golf balls might be releasing and whether they are a problem for the surrounding ecosystem remains a mystery, Weber adds, but that might be the topic of future studies.

Photo: Alex Weber

Microplastics have been identified in nearly all parts of the oceans and in a variety of marine animals including seabirds, whales, and worms, says Miriam Goldstein, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, a public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. It’s likely that plastic is harmful for the fish eating it, but the implications on human health are not yet clear, she says. “There’s a lot we don’t know, but there’s plastic everywhere in the ocean and it should not be there.”

The risk of leakage of harmful chemicals from golf balls is low, partly because golf balls degrade slowly underwater, says Robert Weiss, an emeritus professor of polymer engineering at the University of Connecticut. “The amount of pollution from the golf balls is probably insignificant” compared to other sources of plastics and metals in the oceans, he says.

Going forward, the plan is to develop policies to resolve, or at least limit, the problem. “The solution to our ocean pollution problem is not to take the plastic out but to stop the plastic from going in,” Weber says.

Both the Pebble Beach Company, which owns several golf courses around Carmel Bay, and the researchers of the study, say they have been liaising with the Monterey National Marine Sanctuary — which is responsible for preserving the local marine ecosystem — to identify possible solutions.

“Pebble Beach Company has a proactive remediation program in place. It starts with notifying golfers — directly and through our caddies — that intentionally hitting balls into the water is prohibited,” a spokesperson for the organization tells Medium. “We contract with research divers to collect golf balls and independently identify and advise on key locations for our ongoing collection efforts. We also contract with private professional divers to collect errant golf balls, and our staff and volunteers regularly collect golf balls from the shoreline and beaches.”

Training people to shoot more accurately could help reduce the number of balls landing in the oceans, says Sabine Pahl, a social psychologist at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. who has worked in the area of protecting marine environments and energy efficiency. There might be technical interventions as well, such as adding nets to prevent balls from landing in the water, she says.

There’s plenty of evidence that people spending time in natural environments are healthier and happier, Pahl says. “But how do we trade that off with potential harm to the natural environment?”

Weber thinks it’s a good idea for caddies, who accompany golfers, to keep track of how many balls players lose on a daily basis and record that in an electronic database. This, she adds, will help golf courses track how many balls they are losing to the oceans. Then, she argues, it’s only fair that golfers, or courses, are responsible for removing at least a percentage of that figure.

Photo: Robert Beck

Another possible option could be biodegradable golf balls, Weber adds. Albus Golf’s ecobioball, for instance, biodegrades within 48 hours after hitting water, exposing an inner core consisting of fish food. But one big problem with biodegradable balls, so far, is that they don’t meet the exact requirements to be considered a golf ball by the standards of the United States Golf Association, Weber says.

“We wouldn’t be having this problem if golf balls floated,” she says. At the same time, coating golf balls with a material that allows them to float may cause the balls to drift away, making them even harder to retrieve, says Savoca.

It’s unclear what lies ahead for golf balls in Carmel Bay and elsewhere; Weber is due to start college later this year and she’s not yet sure if she will continue studying golf ball pollution. She hopes her study will spark an interest among the scientific community.

“It’s an interesting topic and I love doing it,” she says. “And it’s going to have an impact that we can visually see because it’s a problem we created.”