“And today’s material is … cork!” Ivar laughs at the suggestion to examine cork as a sustainable solution. It reminds him of the Dutch satirical tv-series Creative with Cork. “Yes, I know…” says Floris, “Cork still has an image problem. But believe me, the material has all kinds of sustainable properties and is much more versatile than you think!”
Portugal: Cork World Champion
Determined to find out more, we sail to Lagos, in the Algarve. The cork oak tree thrives in this region in southern Portugal. We see them everywhere during our tour of the area. This comes to no surprise if you consider that the country is responsible for more than 52 percent of the global annual production. Other countries around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Spain, Italy and Morocco, produce the remainder of the world’s production of about 350,000 tons of cork per year.
The cork oaks can be recognized from afar. They look like Northern European oaks, but with smaller leaves. Yet it is the special bark that betrays their presence, especially when the trees have been peeled recently and the bare trunk colours bright red-brown.
Natural and Renewable
We notice something else: white numbers are painted on the bare trunks. A local farmer explains the tree-graffiti. “Once every nine years we harvest the bark. It requires some patience, but only then we get the best quality. As a reminder, we write the last digit of the harvest year on the tree trunk”. “But doesn’t the removal of the bark damage the trees?” we ask. “No, after each harvest the bark grows again. The quality of the cork even gets better, because the bark becomes smoother. If the harvesting is done carefully, the cork oak trees can live for more than two hundred years.” The cork tree is so important to Portugal that they are even protected by law. They cannot be cut down without permission.
We also learn that all cork oak forests together remove around 10 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, which helps to prevent dangerous climate disruption. The trees naturally occur in mixed forests, where they play an important role in water management. They thrive in a diverse ecosystem and contribute to a varied living environment for many different plants and animals. Because of this healthy biodiversity, cork forests are also called the Amazon of Europe. This makes the cork oak a truly sustainable source of natural, renewable and biodegradable material.
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 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, we join a tour at local cork factory Novacortiça. Trucks full of tree bark come and go, their loads emptied onto huge piles outside the factory.
The Original Wine Bottle Stopper
“The peeled bark is dried for months, then steamed and pressed,” our tour guide Catarina describes the process. Her family has been managing the company for generations. Catarina explains why the material is so suitable for stopping wine bottles. “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.” That sounds very convincing. “But how does the cork flavour develop, which can spoil a good bottle of wine?” we ask Catarina. “This is caused by a fungus, but our industry has now solved this problem by applying strict controls.” That does indeed seem to be the case: in the factory we witness how intensively all cork is checked when the cork arrives and during processing.
Catarina explains that the bottle stoppers for the best wines are made from one piece of cork. “Cork of lesser quality, trimmings and used corks are ground into granulate. The granulate is mixed with resin to make all kinds of products, such as stoppers for less expensive wines, but also products for the house. This means that everything is used; it’s a production process without waste.” We are curious to know which other products can be made from cork and head to the shop.
In the factory shop we discover surprising products. It turns out that cork granulate can be used for sports fields and is ideal as insulation material. We also see floor tiles and acoustic wall coverings. In addition to these industrial applications, cork is increasingly used for furniture and as a replacement for plastic. We see a whole couch covered in cork, as well as shoes, bags and phone cases. In these cases cork is used in combination with other materials, such as textiles and leather. It turns out that almost anything can be made from or with cork, like this webshop demonstrates. The sustainable material even inspired the owner of a new 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?
We find the versatility and durability of cork impressive. If you consider how it stimulates local employment and contributes to the health of entire ecosystems cork is even more valuable. Wouldn’t these trees provide a good sustainable solution all over the world, we wonder? Our tour guide Catarina tempers our enthusiasm somewhat. “The cork oak is quite picky when it comes to soil and climate, which is why it primarily thrives in the Mediterranean region. In addition, it takes a lot of patience, because it takes more than 40 years for a tree to produce high quality cork for the first time.”
Spreading the cork oak is thus a long-term solution. Nevertheless, we can all stimulate the use of the material. By using cork as an alternative to plastic in the manufacture of utensils, for example. In this way we support this sustainable industry, contribute to CO2 storage and preserve valuable ecosystems. This way we are not only creative with cork, but also sustainable!