Wilson's plastic-free tennis ball packaging
Wilson Sporting Goods approached Billerud with a challenge: Design an environmentally-friendly container to match their innovative new tennis balls.
Every year, an estimated 350 million tennis balls are sold worldwide, mostly in pressurized plastic containers that are designed to preserve their bounce. As soon as a container is opened, tennis balls start to lose their pressure. Tennis balls have short lives, compared to their refillable cousins in football, basketball and soccer.
Wilson Sporting Goods seized this opportunity to pioneer tennis balls that rely less on a pressurized core, which in turn enabled them to redesign their packaging, reducing waste generated by plastic containers. They approached Billerud with a challenge: Design an environmentally-friendly container to accommodate their innovative tennis balls.
History of Wilson Tennis Balls
Wilson has a long history with professional sports. The company was founded in the 1910s and has grown from a locally-owned manufacturing company based in Illinois to a worldwide producer of high-quality sporting goods (still headquartered in Illinois). Since 1978, Wilson tennis balls have been the official and exclusive ball brand for the U.S. Open.
Tennis balls have seen little innovation in the last several decades. Since the mid 20th century, regulation tennis balls have been made from rubber shells covered in felt and filled with pressurized gas.
In the 1980s, Wilson introduced the pressurized see-through plastic container, which helped maintain the pressure of the ball and maintained its lively bounce. Standard tennis balls must bounce 53 to 58 inches (134 to 147 cm) when dropped to a concrete floor from 100 inches (254 cm).
The problem: Landfill issues across the world
The negative effects of plastics have been well-documented. The New York Times estimates 125 million tennis balls are sold in the United States annually, and 350 million tennis balls are manufactured around the world. Less than 0.5% of tennis balls are recycled globally, which means millions of tennis balls end up in landfills each year.
“While the tennis ball has not fundamentally changed over 40 years, it has contributed to landfill issues across the world. We decided to re-engineer the ball from the inside out to be gentler on our world while not giving an inch in performance, actually enhancing it.”
- Hans-Martin Reh, General Manager, Racquet Sports
Wilson sought to innovate in order to reduce waste and produce a product that can be packaged in recycled, recyclable and otherwise environmentally friendly materials.
The challenge: Showcase innovation and increase sustainability
Wilson had already changed the way tennis balls have been manufactured, now they needed innovative packaging that was equally groundbreaking. Their new packaging needed to be durable, efficient and environmentally-friendly while still maintaining the integrity of the balls inside. The packaging needed to be as impressive as the innovation in tennis balls that lay inside.
The solution: The “sweet spot” between performance and sustainability
Wilson developed the Triniti tennis ball, so named for its three key features:
- 4X longer fresh-ball feel for liveliness right out of the box
- Extended durability
- Sustainable packaging
Wilson has made a decisive shift to incorporate sustainable materials into the re-engineering of their tennis balls, among several other sporting goods. Incorporating STR felt added flexibility to the Triniti tennis ball, while enhancing feel and control during gameplay.
The Triniti tennis ball shows that brands can step up the performance of their products with sustainability in mind. This very philosophy informed the packaging Billerud used to house Wilson tennis balls.
Billerud developed a container made from cartonboard, manufactured from 100% natural primary fibers that are recyclable, and best of all, biodegradable. The Billerud cartonboard brought the ideal strength and grammage for safe transport of the Triniti balls, while providing a brilliant medium for graphic packaging.
The future: Innovating sporting goods from design to packaging
Market insights group Nielsen found that products that marketed their sustainability saw more growth than products that made no such claims. Nielsen also reports that 81% of global consumers feel strongly that companies should be involved in environmental improvement.
In our own consumer survey conducted in 2017, we found that consumers are willing to change their behaviors regarding recycling, and they look to manufacturers and retailers to lead the way. Make it easy and fun to recycle, and they’ll reward you with brand loyalty.
When asked to list their top asks that would make packaging better, consumers said:
- Reduce waste
- Increase recycling levels
- Reduce plastic littering in the oceans
Wilson not only changed the way it packaged tennis balls, it redesigned the product to overcome an industry-wide challenge. This innovation was expanded to include product packaging in an overall commitment to change and sustainability.
With these priorities in mind, Wilson teamed up with RecycleBalls to recycle and repurpose tennis balls across the US To mitigate the environmental impact of tennis balls. This partnership aims to repurpose 20 million tennis balls from landfills between 2018 and 2021.