North Bend entrepreneurs make eco-friendly dog toys from tennis balls
December 18, 2013
By Margery Cercado
Being eco-conscious is no longer just for people.
The owners of the North Bend-based company, Ballboy, believe that canine family members can also reduce their carbon footprint, offering ecological dog toys created from their home.
Founder and owner Kris Reid began the business three years ago. The former competitive springboard diver became inspired while recovering from a major injury.
“I was down from my last shoulder surgery [with] six months’ recovery and that’s a lot of sitting and watching TV,” he said. “So one too many ASPCA commercials with all the sad puppies that need help and Sara McLachlan, and it hit me one day that I had to make a difference and to try to help some of these animals.”
Originally, Reid and his husband Jim Ellis had a successful painting company in Bellevue, but after moving to North Bend, the two began brainstorming for a new business. One day Reid watched his mother’s dog chew a tennis ball to pieces. He got the idea they could make better quality dog toys and give some of the profit to no-kill animal shelters.
Ellis, who is the company’s vice president, described the quality of most tennis balls made for dogs as: “Imported [and] fake … they come in from China and they’re seamed [instead of sewn], they’re not real tennis balls.”
Reid thought that instead of giving pets cheap, poorly-made imitations, they could use recycled, high-quality tennis balls as dog toys. He conducted some research and, as Ellis explains, found out that “350 million [balls] were looking for new homes after play in tennis centers, universities — all across the country. And a majority, around 20,000 tons, of that rubber was going into the landfill.”
Purchased old tennis balls
They learned they could purchase these old tennis balls. With their idea in place the two began their business, converting half of their property’s 1,800-square-foot shop into the manufacturing facility for Ballboy.
At the beginning, the company researched and tested their products over a couple years.
“There are some specific things about product testing that are pretty important [such as making] sure all the balls were clean, and did not have toxins or heavy metals,” Ellis said.
Ballboy uses information from the website healthystuff.org, which conducts research on “toxic chemicals in everyday products.” Healthystuff uses an X-ray Florescence (XRF) analyzer to test products. According to its website, “XRFs are widely used by both product manufacturers and government regulators to screen consumer products for hazardous chemicals.”
On tests conducted on some Chinese-manufactured, tennis ball dog toys, healthystuff.org found traces of lead, arsenic and bromine. On better quality tennis balls tested, no traces were found.
Reid conducted his own research, renting a XRF X-ray machine to test toxicity in the tennis ball brands they use. For some, there were low traces of contaminants.
These balls, as well as ones that are too flat or dirty to be used as toys, are re-recycled and donated to places such as schools or nursing homes. There they are repurposed for other uses. At the latter, they are often put on the bottom of chair legs and walkers.
The company’s first product, three recycled tennis balls in an agricultural-quality, biodegradable net bag, or “Replay” as they’re called on the website, has become the signature product.
Currently Ballboy has 14 products. It uses pure raw materials, such as 100 percent hemp for toys, and recycled-paper labels with all soy, non-dye based ink.
Very important testers:
Their own dogs
As for testers, the couple has enlisted the help of some very important personnel: their own dogs.
Max, the pair’s big, lovable Lab, was the “original Ballboy,” testing all their products. After Max died at 13, three new “Ballboys” joined the test team. Phoebe, the pug, and Bodhi and Ben, fox red Labs, continue Max’s work.
Reid and Ellis also send test products around the country for family and friends to try with their beloved canine companions.
Solange Teague is a friend and customer who has purchased Ballboy products since the beginning. She wrote in an email why she has remained a loyal customer:
“I am a big supporter of recycling and all natural products for animals,” she wrote. “Why should my furry child use products that I would not use myself because of chemical content?”
Ellis also added that Ballboy toys are meant to be fun for both the owner as well as their dog.
“Our main goal has been to provide safe, interactive play-toys for pets,” he said.
Ellis stressed that their toys were not chew toys and are not intended for extreme chewers; “These are fetch toys, toys to play with.”
Hard to keep up with demand
He says it’s difficult to keep up with the demand locally, nationally and internationally, even with five employees creating the handmade toys daily. Recently Ballboy sent out the largest order they’ve ever had to two locations in Canada.
“The biggest challenge has been … to be timely in production and we’re doing it little by little,” he said. “To try to get to a profitable place and do all the work yourselves, that’s what a homemade business is all about.”
However, charity remains one of the biggest driving forces for Ballboy. Ellis explains what he hopes the future will bring.
“Our ultimate goal is to take that very first item, those three balls in the net bag,” he said “[And] when we become profitable as a company, we want to have all the net profit from that singular item go to non-kill animal shelters and other charities.”
Ballboy continues to expand and garner attention – the company was recently featured in Pet Connection Magazine – and Reid and Ellis are ready for what’s to come, with big dreams for their business at the base of Mount Si.
“We’re right on the caps of explosion,” Reid said. “I see big things for the future; we should be expanding across the country this next year and hopefully becoming a household brand.”
For merchandise, retailers and more information on the company, please visit: http://www.ballboyshop.com.
Margery Cercado is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.