Cork: The Circular Material Par Excellence

Applications beyond the humble wine stopper
Cork: The Circular Material Par Excellence
Publ. date 8 Oct 2019
As part of their round-the-world sailing trip in search of sustainable solutions, the Sailors for Sustainability have moored their boat in Portugal's Algarve region. It's not only popular among tourists, but also where the cork oak tree thrives. Their omnipresence has turned the country into the number one cork producer: it accounts for more than 52 percent of the global annual production of 350,000 tons of cork per year.

Cork is widely known as the preferred material to make wine stoppers. However, its potential reaches far beyond that. What role could the material play in a circular, carbon negative economy?

Natural benefits

The cork tree is so important to Portugal that they may not be felled without permission. Luckily, there is no need to fell the trees to get an economic benefit. It's the bark that holds the treasure, as it is made of cork. Removing the bark does not damage the trees. Better yet, the bark regrows and can be harvested again nine years later. The quality of the cork even improves after harvesting, because the bark becomes smoother. If the harvesting is done carefully, the cork oak trees can live for more than two hundred years.

During this time, the cork oak trees play a vital role in the ecosystem. All cork oak forests together remove around 10 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, which helps to prevent dangerous climate disruption. They thrive in mixed forests, where they manage water levels and contribute to a varied living environment for many different plants and animals. This makes the cork oak a truly sustainable source of natural, renewable and biodegradable material. Ideal for use in a circular economy!

Local employment

The cork oak is not only an environmental asset, but also provides an important source of income for landowners and cork strippers, the tiradors. They master an age-old craft, which is still done by hand. With a special axe they remove the bark without damaging the tree. It's a very precise job, which provides well-paid work for people from the region during the harvest season.

Of course, the work does not stop after stripping the trees. To see how the bark is turned into cork products, Floris and Ivar tour local cork factory Novacortiça. Like many other cork factories, it is family-run. Outside, trucks full of tree bark empty their loads onto huge piles. After months of drying, peeled bark is steamed and pressed. Only thereafter do its unique characteristics come to bear.

Circular and versatile

Cork has an elastic memory, which means that the material always returns to its original shape. It breathes but leaves no taste. It’s sturdy but flexible. It’s light, and can tolerate both heat and cold. No wonder it's perfect as wine stopper. The dreaded cork taste in wines, caused by a fungus, is under control thanks to strict checks.

While bottle stoppers for the best wines are made from one piece of cork, nothing goes to waste. Trimmings and cork of lesser quality are ground into granulate. But also old corks are being ground, making it a fully recyclable material. The granulate is mixed with resin to make all kinds of products, such as stoppers for less expensive wines, but also products for sport fields and the house, such as insulation, floor tiles and acoustic wall coverings. In all these applications, the carbon stored in the cork will be removed from the biosphere during its entire product lifetime.

Cork also features in furniture and as a replacement for plastic, as a couch covered in cork, shoes, bags, and phone cases in the factory's shop demonstrate. For these applications, cork is used in combination with other materials, such as textiles and leather. The sustainable material even inspired the owner of a hotel in Portugal to use cork as building and decorative material. If you fancy being surrounded by cork, you can spend the night in his Ecorkhotel.

A Global Sustainable Solution?

Although the versatility and durability of cork are impressive, while also stimulating local employment and the health of entire ecosystems, it must be borne in mind that the cork oak is quite picky when it comes to soil and climate. It primarily thrives in the Mediterranean region. In addition, it takes more than 40 years for a tree to produce high quality cork for the first time, which makes spreading the cork oak a long-term solution. Nevertheless, the use of the material can be stimulated by using cork as an alternative to plastic. In this way we can support this circular industry, contribute to CO2 storage and preserve valuable ecosystems. This way we are not only creative with cork, but also sustainable!

Sailors for Sustainability is formed by Dutch sailors Ivar Smits and Floris van Hees who chronicle their sailing trip around the world in search of sustainable solutions and examples of circular economy thinking. The goal is to inspire their followers with positive cases while raising awareness of the urgency of sustainable change. Using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy, they travel sustainably. Finch & Beak is involved as a partner of the project to share the insights gained by Sailors for Sustainability to inspire sustainable business transformation. More information about the sailors and their project can be found on the Sailors for Sustainability website.  

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