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Biodegradeable Golf Balls Bad News For Lobsters


You've probably seen those commercials for cruise ships with people on the back of the boat whacking golf balls out into the ocean, or maybe you remember the "Seinfeld" episode when George Costanza, pretending to be a marine biologist, has to rescue an injured whale on the beach.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Seinfeld")

Mr. JASON ALEXANDER (Actor): (as George Costanza) And I found myself right on top of him, face to face with the blowhole. I could barely see from the waves crashing down upon me, but I knew something was there. So, I reached my hand in and felt around and pulled out the obstruction.

GREENE: And George was holding up the obstruction - it was a golf ball.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Seinfeld")

Mr. MICHAEL RICHARDS (Actor): (as Cosmo Kramer) What is that, Titleist?

GREENE: A golf ball, which we learned had been hit into the ocean by George's buddy, Kramer.

Gold balls ending up in the wrong places can actually be a very serious problem, and we have an update here. Whales and other marine life at least can relax a little bit. There is a new kind of golf ball in town: it's a biodegradable golf ball and it's made from lobster shells.

We're joined now by David Neivandt. He's a professor of biological and chemical engineering at the University of Maine in Orono, and he helped create this ball. Welcome to the program.

Professor DAVID NEIVANDT (Biological and Chemical Engineering, University of Maine at Orono): Thank you, David.

GREENE: I understand you remember that "Seinfeld" episode.

Prof. NEIVANDT: Yeah, I do. It always amuses me when I think of that project, it's one of the first things that comes to mind, is that "Seinfeld" episode.

GREENE: We should say that biodegradable golf balls are not a brand new invention but yours is the first made with lobster shells. Why lobster shells? Why is that the choice?

Prof. NEIVANDT: First, it was a natural choice. You know, one of the major waste streams out of the lobster processing, and in fact crustacean processing in general, facilities is shell, is the crustacean shell, which is often landfilled or on occasion returned to the ocean.

GREENE: What kind of a shelf life are we talking about? I mean, if these golf balls made from lobster shells end up on ocean floor, how quickly do they biodegrade?

Prof. NEIVANDT: Degradation in the ocean is of the order of a week to two weeks, somewhere in that timeframe so.

GREENE: Quickly.

Prof. NEIVANDT: Comparatively fast, that's right.

GREENE: How long do regular golf balls last on the ocean floor?

Prof. NEIVANDT: There's been a study done, I believe it was out of Europe, that estimated degradation times in the order of 100 to 1,000 years.

GREENE: A lot longer.

Prof. NEIVANDT: Very persistent.

GREENE: And these lobster golf balls, they look like your average golf ball? I mean, it'll look familiar to people?

Prof. NEIVANDT: Yeah. We've designed them so that they're dimensionally the same as a regular golf ball, they weigh the same amount, they're dimpled like a regular golf ball to give them the correct flight characteristics.

GREENE: Are you a golfer?

Prof. NEIVANDT: Eh, I'm a hacker.

GREENE: How far can a golfer drive a lobster shell golf ball compared to a regular old Titleist?

Prof. NEIVANDT: So, using a driver, we're getting approximately 70 percent of the distance of a regular golf ball. So, it's not quite as functional as a conventional golf ball.

GREENE: So, we might not see these on the PGA Tour, but people on cruise ships might be willing to take a little bit off their shot?

Prof. NEIVANDT: Well, that's our hope, exactly.

GREENE: David Neivandt, professor at the University of Maine and one of the creators of a golf ball made of lobster shells. Professor, thank you for being here.

Prof. NEIVANDT: You're welcome. Thanks for your interest in our project.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.