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Corks Can Live Long After the Wine Is Gone

Being an ecologically minded consumer just isn’t about the vineyard. It seems that the wine industry is betting on consumers wanting and appreciating grapes grown in a prescribed manner that allows for designations such as: sustainable, Biodynamic, green, organic or natural.

As if grapes aren’t the only component of winemaking to come under the long arm of the “wine police”, the winery gets special attention in such things as their use of renewable energy (wind and solar), recycling water, fermentation additives and closures; yes closures.

Have you ever thought: What is the after-life of a cork? Well there is one. There is a whole new industry that has cropped up in America that recycles, repurposes and otherwise disposes of used cork. You thought you were helping the planet by throwing your used corks in that glass jar only to occasionally look through them to remember that special wine.

Cork re-purposing is bucking a recycling trend. In an article re-published in “Salon”, author Anna Sanford writes that recycling in California is down approximately 5 percentage points and recycling centers are closing primarily since recycled materials such as plastic bottles are less valuable due to the price of oil–plastic is a derivative of oil. But recycled cork is booming. One organization that is focused on repurposing cork for the good of the planet is a non-profit forestry organization-Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, (CFCA) which operates Cork ReHarvest.

Cork is an interesting product because a tree is never cut down for the cork. Corks are made from the bark, which is hand harvested, every 9-11 years. The trees can be harvested for up to 150 years, with no harm to the tree. The cork tree is from the oak family, (Quercus suber) so the cork will impart some of the same characteristics as does an oak barrel. From an environmental viewpoint, the carbon footprint to produce a cork is significantly less than that to produce a metal screw caps or plastic plug closure for wine. With convenient recycling methods for the consumer, the carbon footprint for re-purposing used wine corks, through the Cork ReHarvest program is virtually zero. Also, there are no active recycling programs for screw caps or plastic plugs in the U.S.

There are 13 billion wine corks produced each year, with 51% of the wine corks coming from Portugal and 30% coming from Spain. Cork is natural, non-toxic, biodegradable and is a totally renewable product for the wine industry.

The same cannot be said for aluminum screw caps and plastic closures. In making a cork for a bottle of wine there are approximately 26 steps and in an environmental study by “The Academic Wino”, cork is the hands down best closure from an ecological perspective. Life Cycle Assessment, (LCA) studies show that each cork sequesters 9g of CO2.

According to Wikipedia, a carbon footprint study concluded that cork is the most environmentally friendly wine stopper in comparison to metal or plastic. The Corticeira Amorim study, (“Analysis of the life cycle of Cork, Aluminum and Plastic Wine Closures”), was developed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, following ISO 14040 standards. Results concluded, relative to the emission of greenhouse gases, each plastic stopper released 10 times more CO2, while an aluminum screw cap releases 26 times more CO2 than does a cork stopper in the manufacturing process. The 26 steps, in analyzing the carbon footprint, pertains to the manufacture of cork and includes getting it to the winery.

As alluded to earlier, there are two major players in the relative new industry of repurposing cork-Cork ReHarvest which is a non-profit 501c3 and ReCork. I came across Cork ReHarvest while at a Whole Foods store and saw a used cork collection box. I called The Cork Quality Council in Sonoma, CA to find out what this was all about. The Executive Director of the organization is Peter Weber. Peter confirmed there are two large groups that are active in aggregating used corks through relationships with various retail, hospitality and winery locations. “There are probably a dozen or so smaller organizations that collect used corks for various specialty applications,” Peter commented.

Cork ReHarvest being a non-profit uses the used corks they collect for educational programs to build awareness of the cork forests, to promote cork applications (wine closures) and to explain the ecological benefits of cork-wine being one application. The recycling of cork happens rather quickly. ReHarvest reports, approximately 98% of wine bought is consumed within 48 hours. That means corks can come back into the recycled system quickly.

Cork ReHarvest partners with approximately 1,500 collection centers. “In addition to Whole Foods, there are major restaurants such as Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Caesars Palace who support our recycling program along with major wineries who send used corks to us for recycling; we prefer to call it repurposing,” says Patrick Spencer of Cork ReHarvest whose offices are in Salem, Oregon. “We sell collected corks to 6 recycling partners in the U.S. who then distribute them to customers only in the U.S.” To a winemaker, a grade “Triple A” cork can cost $1.00 to $1.50 each. A recycler will sell these used corks for approximately $0.09 each in 1,000 quantities.

The question remaining: What are used corks good for? Some recycled cork finds its way into concrete due to its insulation properties. The recycled paper industry uses ground-up cork combined with reconstituted paper to make packing material. The sports and fishing industry uses reprocessed cork for bobbers and grips, dart boards and household items such as trivets. The building industry uses recycled cork for floor underpayments. Even those sandals you like might have a cork sole liner.

Four times each year the non-profit Cork Forest Conservation Alliance conducts eco-tours to 3 of Spain’s cork forest regions to give travelers a total emersion in the culture, food, wine and forestry of these remarkable forests, http://www.frombarktobottle.org

Cork is the environment friendly gift that keeps on giving; it has a life after the wine is gone.

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