Josh Jones, the founder of Above Ground Level Discs (AGL), likes to compare AGL's offerings to the beer releases of a craft brewing company.
"Just like a craft brewer, we create small batch blends that cater to our customers," said Jones. "We let our team and customers guide our decisions when it comes to naming and disc creation and steer our brand in numerous ways."
This comparison is very fitting as disc golf and craft beer have grown alongside one another since the 1970s. Many breweries are even adding disc golf courses to their properties so that customers come back not just for the brews, but for the birdies, too.
As the market for craft beer exploded, brewers no longer had to create beer for the masses but could succeed by producing lesser known styles for enthusiasts and experimenters. It appears that disc golf may have reached a similar point, where disc manufacturers don't need to focus on mass production but can find success with smaller releases geared toward a more targeted demographic.
AGL's niche? The eco-friendly disc market. Their vision is to be the world's "greenest disc golf company," a distinction they hope to reach by creatively reducing the impacts that every step of their manufacturing and sales process has on the environment to a minimum.
A Brief History of AGL Discs
Jones decided to start making his own discs out of frustration. Whenever he bought a disc in a mold that he already owned, it flew differently from how he anticipated.
"I wanted consistency when purchasing discs or at least to understand why some discs flew differently than others," said Jones.
Years of experimenting, failing, and ultimately succeeding in producing consistent molds have provided Jones with the disc production knowledge that he was looking for, but it hasn't come easily.
"It's definitely been a learning experience designing molds," said Jones. "I had to jump into the deep water head-first. Every new mold and new plastic presents a challenge where I need to guess, test, and revise to get what I'm looking for."
AGL was founded in 2012. They started manufacturing their own discs in 2015 and had their first disc, a driver called the Cypress, approved by the Professional Disc Golf Association in 2017. AGL now has 13 discs approved by the PDGA which range in price from $11.99 for discs with stamping errors to $39.99 for discs with complex and unique stamps or dye jobs.
As a simple way of differentiating themselves, AGL started naming all of their discs after trees but quickly expanded that environmental focus to consider every aspect of their workflow. The hope is that their small, family-run business may eventually get the major disc manufacturers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices of their own.
"The company is still just me, my wife, and our daughter, so we're just a flake of snow on the tip of the iceberg," said Jones. "But if we can make some of the big companies rethink what they're doing, we can drive real change."
What Makes AGL Discs Eco-Friendly?
AGL tries to use as much recycled plastic in their discs as possible, and every disc they make contains mostly recycled plastic. Their goal is to source as much plastic as possible from U.S. landfills.
When recycled plastics from landfills won't do for consistency's sake, AGL does its best to use Gateway Discs' regrind plastic or organic hemp blend rather than typical virgin plastic. Regrind plastic comes from a previous batch of discs that had to be discarded because of manufacturing defects.1
"We've been pumping out way better consistency since our partnership with Gateway," said Jones. "The goal is to never bring something to market that I'm not proud of. One time we pulled 1,2000 Sycamores out, regrinded, and made them again. We have very strict quality control."
Due to the variety of materials being used, there tend to be small variations in each new batch of discs, but Jones does his best to elaborate this in release descriptions and takes advantage of the fun outcomes as well.
"We did a batch of clear or ice plastic discs from recycled hospital tubing," said Jones. "The plastic was already translucent and came out looking great. We've also done special batches with recycled material from the fiber optics around underwater sea cables. Those discs were much lighter than most of our other discs but with a similar density."
One area of production where AGL still uses virgin material is with their coloring agents, but even in that area they are finding ways to get creative to both reduce the need for virgin material and gain new customers.
"We made a special run from Home Depot buckets with an orange hue to the discs," said Jones. "I had a dad buy a disc because he thought it was really cool and wanted to show his construction friends a disc made out of a Home Depot bucket."
AGL also considers the impacts of their manufacturing beyond just where their disc material comes from.
"None of our garbage ends up in a landfill," said Jones. "It is a lot of work, but we partner with some awesome organizations to ensure that all of our waste is properly disposed of."
For every disc someone buys from AGL, they receive a tree seed, which will hopefully produce a future oxygen generator and (possibly) obstacle for the next generation of disc golfers. Their website provides growing instructions to help their customers plant their tree seeds, and they also work with their partner Tree-Nation to plant a tree elsewhere in the world for every item purchased. At the time of writing, Tree-Nation had planted 9,690 trees on behalf of AGL and its customers.
Sharing Is Caring
Jones knows that AGL alone cannot make a huge difference in creating a more sustainable future for disc golf, and he's open to collaborating and sharing knowledge with as many organizations as possible to help amplify AGL's mission and impact.
"I sell and love all of the big brands, and we need to work together to create real change," said Jones. "I heard of a big company buying 50,000 pounds of recycled material from the same supplier as us. That makes me really excited. If we can do it, they can certainly do it."
1. In the original version of this post, we said AGL uses 100% recycled plastic for its discs, which is inaccurate.