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Tee time for the environment

Modern science has finally come up with the biodegradable golf tee.

That may be small potatoes compared to the environmental threats of toxic waste and global warming. But an estimated 40,000 birch trees a year are chopped up into golf tees.

And the trusty, old painted wooden tee _ which takes years to deteriorate _ has been such a nuisance that golf course crews have to pick up hundreds of broken ones by hand so they don't jam mower blades.

The new vanishing tees _ called Eco-Tees _ are made of Novon, a material that Warner Lambert Co. spent $3-million developing from a blend of corn and potato starches. They look and feel like the plastic tees many courses banned years ago.

"But they deteriorate faster than paper," said David Brooks, spokesman for Novon Products Group in Morris Plains, N.J.

"They're mush in a week," said Jim Denneson, president of Dennco Inc., the Salem, N.H., distributor of Eco-Tees.

A Times reporter stuck one in a glass of water. It was beginning to fall apart in an hour, well on its way in two.

A soggy Eco-Tee goes through a mower like a "wet noodle," Novon's makers boast. Unlike photodegradable products that just deteriorate into tiny flecks of virtually indestructible plastic, Eco-Tees turn into water, carbon dioxide, biomass and some trace amounts of "naturally occurring inorganic materials" after exposure to a few weeks of rain and lawn sprinklers, according to Novon.

Eco-Tees will be available in Kmart, Office Depot and Pace Membership Warehouse Clubs later this summer.

Other uses for Novon's disappearing act are coming, too: stakes for holding new sod in place on hills, loose-fill packing material and a line of throwaway dining utensils for theme parks and fast-food chains.

A clear conscience comes at a price, however. At $1.79 for a pack of 20, Eco-Tees cost five times as much as their wooden cousins.

It's not the first biodegradable golf tee, either.

Credit for that goes to an 11-year-old who used a microwave to cook up the first batch of Bio-Tees for a school science project.

Once in production, however, manufacturers scratched applesauce and spent grain collected from breweries from his recipe. Now the brown, unappealing Bio-Tee is made of pressed peat moss and syrup. And Eco-Tees are replacing them after Bio-Tees proved to be . . . ah . . . too biodegradable.

On hot, humid days many golfers found they disintegrated in the package or in their pockets.