Is Cork Sustainable? Here’s What You Need to Know

Is Cork Sustainable? Here’s What You Need to Know

Did you know the stopper used to seal your wine has an impact on the planet? If you’re a planet-loving wine connoisseur, you’ll want to choose 100% natural cork. Compared to synthetic cork and screw caps, natural cork is the more sustainable and eco-friendly choice. And 97% of wine lovers associate natural cork with quality wine. This is likely because a natural cork stopper is completely impermeable to both liquid and gas, while at the same time allowing oxygen into the bottle. This allows the wine to age over time. 

But why exactly is natural cork the better choice for the planet? Well, that’s what I’m here to discuss. Here are four reasons why cork is a sustainable material worth choosing. The next time you reach for wine, I hope you remember this article and choose better: Choose cork. 

This post was sponsored by 100 Percent Cork. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Please see my disclosure policy for more information. 

Is Cork Sustainable? Here’s What You Need to Know

Is Cork Sustainable? Here's What You Need to Know

1. Cork is biodegradable and recyclable 

First and foremost, end-of-life matters, especially to me as a zero waster. Most materials manufactured today are synthetic and hard to recycle, let alone compostable or biodegradable. FYI, yes there’s a difference and I wrote a whole post about it.  

What’s cork’s end-of-life?

The good news is natural cork is biodegradable, compostable and recyclable! Lets dive into why. 

For starters, natural cork is made from the bark of the cork oak (Quercus suber), an evergreen oak tree predominantly found in Portugal. Since it’s literally made from tree bark, it totally biodegrades and can be recycled without producing toxic residues.  

Along with recycling, you can also compost your natural wine corks, allowing the nutrients to be reused in your garden at home. Make sure that you remove any artificial parts of the cork before putting it into your compost bin – such as any foils or metal toppers.  

If you don’t have a compost bin, you can recycle your corks. You can’t put corks in curbside recycling yet, but you can use programs such as RECORK.  

RECORK has collected over 128 million corks to be recycled into something new. They grind up the cork and use it to create brand new cork products – directly reducing the end-of-life impact of the cork.  

Unlike natural cork, any cork containing plastics can, sadly, only be disposed of in the landfill. With plastic showing up in our bloodstream, lungs, feces and placentas, it’s important to use natural materials to reduce exposure to microplastics as much as possible. 

Top tip: Make sure to cut up your corks into small pieces, to help it break down more quickly.  

Is Cork Sustainable? Here's What You Need to Know

2. Cork is regenerative  

The cork tree has an amazing quality. It can regenerate its bark after harvesting it. No other tree can do this, which makes it the perfect regenerative and sustainable solution.  

How is cork collected?

Around two thirds of the bark can be removed after the first twenty years of the cork tree’s life. Provided none of the inner tree is damaged, the harvesting process can be repeated around every nine years for over 200 years.  

It’s no secret that forests and trees are part of the climate solution. But with so many trees failing to recover from wildfires, logging, natural disasters, insect infestations and warming climates, we need forests that can stand the test of time now more than ever. 

Specifically, the Montado in Portugal is a traditional agroforestry system that hosts these cork oak forests. FYI, agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits. 

These forests are native to the western Mediterranean and some of them are thousands of years old. A single tree can live 100 to 300 years and the cork can be harvested from the tree for an average of 150 years. 

This regeneration quality means we can harvest useful materials, without having to cut down a single tree! While it takes an incredibly skilled person to harvest cork oak bark, this is totally worth it as it has benefits to carbon consumption and supporting biodiversity, as well as supporting local economies.  

Also, this kind of agricultural approach truly helps nourish the soil in many ways. This is important, considering traditional monoculture farms require tons of pesticides and fertilizers that eventually erode and dry out the soil.  

There are only 60 years of farmable soil left, if we continue in the direction we’re going, according to Scientific American

For this reason, we must continue to support sustainable and regenerative agriculture, like cork oak forests, whenever we can! 

Is Cork Sustainable? Here's What You Need to Know

3. Cork forests sequester carbon 

Most impressively, cork forests are super effective carbon sinks, helping us to combat climate change. It is estimated that a well-managed cork forest can absorb around 14.7 tons of CO2 per hectare every single year. 

What’s a carbon sink?

Sequestering carbon means these forests literally pull carbon dioxide out of the air and back into the soil where it belongs. As a storage container for what was once atmospheric carbon, enough healthy soil could offset virtually all greenhouse gases on the planet. Doesn’t that blow your mind? 

The best carbon sinks are dense trees. Cork oak trees grow to around 65 feet tall, which makes them perfect for removing carbon from the atmosphere.  

Cherry oaks, and other tree species, need to be cut down for harvesting. During this process, they lose their ability to continue to absorb carbon dioxide and actually release it into the atmosphere. 

However, since cork oak trees don’t need to be cut down, they can continue to absorb CO2.  

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that by harvesting the outer layer of the tree’s bark, it can increase carbon consumption by up to five times. This is because the tree uses CO2 to regrow its cork.  

If we’re going to fight climate change, we need all the carbon sinks we can get. Supporting cork oak forests by choosing natural cork for your wine is one way we can do this. 

Fun fact – A single cork represents 70 times its weight in carbon consumption. 

Is Cork Sustainable? Here's What You Need to Know

4. Cork supports biodiversity 

Cork is one of the most important habitats in the world, supporting the lives of 135 plants and over 200 animals. Did you know cork forests even have a similar level of biodiversity to the Amazon rainforest and African savannas? These are spots have some of the highest biodiversity levels in the world!  

Do cork forests help animals and plants?

Cork forests are home to many endangered species that simply couldn’t survive outside of this kind of ecosystem. For example, endangered species such as the Iberian lynx, the Iberian imperial eagle, the Barbary deer all call cork forests their home. These vital forests have helped these animals make a huge comeback. 

Not to mention cork oak trees act as a protective barrier against fire and heat, which protects the forest and all the animals in it.

With climate change increasing the number of droughts and wildfires, this is a crucial characteristic that may help cork oak forests survive. Ironically, the scientific name for these species of trees is pyrophytes, which literally translates into “fire plants.”  

And truly, these cork oak forests are flourishing. In the western Mediterranean, there are around 2.2 million hectares of native cork forests. The Montando is one of the world’s top 35 biodiversity hotspots.  

In fact, WWF recommends choosing cork because it is natural and recyclable and it supports jobs and biodiversity. 

Considering we are constantly cutting down forests to make way for monoculture farms, we need all the biodiversity we can get. This will help improve soil quality, nourish a healthy ecosystem, and ultimately, save us and our planet. 

Is Cork Sustainable? Here's What You Need to Know

So, is cork sustainable? The answer is yes – and now you know why! Lets both take the pledge to buy wine with natural corks from now on. You can head over to 100 Percent Cork for more information.  

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By Ariana Palmieri

Ariana Palmieri is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste and sustainability. Her work has also been featured on Going Zero Waste, Green Matters, Mother Earth Living and several other online publications.

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