For a long time, I was under the misapprehension that cork was increasingly being replaced in wine bottles because it was either unsustainable or endangered. Turns out, I was totally wrong about both. Cork is far from being endangered and is incredibly eco-friendly — it's actually one of the most sustainable materials in the world. And it's having a moment, finding its way into all sorts of new products; though, depending on your age, it could be called a resurgence.
The main reason cork is so eco-friendly is because it is harvested by peeling the bark away from cork oak trees (Quercus robur) without harming them. These trees are first harvested at 25-years-old and can then be harvested again every 9-12 years. The trees live for up to 300 years meaning each can be safely harvested more than 16 times.
This peeling process has a number of benefits. Firstly, it makes cork a completely sustainable and renewable material. There is no damage or loss to the ecosystem or the biodiversity cork oak trees contribute to, which is important because they play an vital role in maintaining their ecological environment and its biodiversity through being home to many species of plants and animals, some of which are endangered. Harvesting cork without damaging the tree also maintains the quality of the soil, preventing erosion and conserving water supply.
Secondly, age-old cork oak forests are carbon sinks — absorbing tonnes of carbon dioxide. In Portugal, home to the largest cork oak forest area in the world, these trees offset 10 million tonnes of carbon each year. Even after harvesting the bark, the trees continue to absorb CO2 from the environment. Little wonder that the cork oak tree is the national tree of Portugal and has been protected there by law since the 13th century.
On top of all that, cork production has virtually no waste and doesn't require fertiliser, pesticides, irrigation or pruning. It has low embodied energy (the energy needed for manufacturing a product) and is completely biodegradable, compostable and, where facilities exist, recyclable.
Cork also has a lot going for it from a functional perspective, far beyond its use in wine corks — it is easy to work with, strong, lightweight, slightly elastic, waterproof, insulating, durable and cushioning. Those qualities make it a great choice for everything from flooring and footwear (think: Birkenstocks) to building materials and insulation on the space shuttle (true story, read about it here). Cork is increasingly used in furniture, travel and fashion accessories and home décor (beyond the ubiquitous coaster, placemat or cork board).
Too good to be true? Well, yes. Here in Australia there are some limitations. First, we are all the way down in the Southern Hemisphere, and while a small amount of cork is produced in the ACT, the cork we use mainly comes from the Northern Hemisphere, specifically around the Mediterranean. That means we import it either as a material to use or in finished products, and that transportation negates some of its eco-friendliness. Also, currently in Australia, cork isn't readily recycled. As always Teracycle will accept wine corks (what don't they accept!?), but really your best options once the cork has served its purpose and can't be repurposed is to break it down to use as mulch or to put into compost.
My takeaway is that it is still a better option than most other materials, especially if they (or the products they are made into) are imported anyway. And in the meantime, we will just hope for some usable local production of this amazing material.
Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.