From the March 2010 issue of Startups

There's a truism for companies that want to create green products, whether they're in fashion, building materials, shoes, cars or sports: It's not good enough to have a great green product. You need to have a great product, period, because your product isn't going to contend solely against other green products.

"It's a great time to be green as long as your product can compete in the green market and the general market," says William Carey, CEO of Mesa, Arizona-based Dixon Golf , a division of DW Sports Group. Carey and his compatriots at Dixon Golf discovered that truth through trial and error as they sought to create a biodegradable golf ball. They wanted to do something about the fact that 300 million golf balls end up in landfills every year. And since they couldn't make golfers better, they had to design a better ball.

Dixon Golf discovered that a biodegradable ball was unrealistic--not because it couldn't be created, but because it couldn't perform as well as regular golf balls. Carey recalls that the biodegradable balls carried a great message, but nobody was going to hear it because no golfer wants to play a ball that can't carry the water hazard like a Titleist or check up downhill from the hole.

In true entrepreneurial spirit, the Dixon Golf team didn't give up. It asked a question: Can we build a golf ball that performs as well as the best balls on the market and is 100 percent recyclable? Turns out the answer is yes, and Dixon did it well enough to earn the endorsement of three-time world long-drive champion Sean Fister. The typical ball has some recyclable components in it, Carey says, but by taking the heavy metals out of the manufacturing process, Dixon created a ball that is completely recyclable. Even the cut ones from those times golfers fail to keep their heads down.

Halfway across the country in Knox, Indiana, another team of golf-minded entrepreneurs was having the same thoughts, this time about the sheer number of golf tees that litter the tee areas of golf courses everywhere and drive groundskeepers crazy by fouling up mower blades. The guys at Eco Golf decided to attack the problem on two fronts: biodegradability and endurance.

"With golf tees, the biggest bang for the buck comes from durability," says Craig Dulworth, a partner at Eco Golf with Gordon Schenk and Mike Tetzloff. "With our Endurance Tee, you take two with you only in case you lose one. At the end of the day, you can put it back in your bag and use it again." Dulworth says an average plastic Endurance Tee--made from post-industrial or below-spec materials--will last for four or five rounds. And when it finally is broken or lost, it will biodegrade. In a compost heap, it can disappear in nine months. Sitting in a landfill, the tee will be gone in 48 months.

Eco Golf's other line of ball props, Tee2Green tees, are more like traditional wooden tees, but they, too, will biodegrade in as little as nine months, and they are made from all renewable substances like wood pulp, wheat straw and corn.

Tees that biodegrade make life easy on golfers. They can do their part by doing what they've probably always done: leaving broken tees where they lie. But playing recyclable golf balls requires an extra step, because they aren't going to decompose over time if left on the course. Dixon Golf figured that out and does what it can to make recycling easy for golfers. Messages on the packaging encourage golfers to recycle the balls by sending them back to the company (and earning a small compensation) or taking them to the pro shop at their favorite course. And the company is signing up pro shops to take part in the recycling program so more golfers can do their part.

The balls that are returned meet one of two fates. Those in good shape are given to youth programs like the First Tee. Those that aren't in such good shape are ground up and used for playground surfacing.

Now, if only someone would create a recyclable ball that flies straight no matter how bad you hit it.