Next time you’re in the supermarket looking to buy a nice bottle of wine: think cork. Although it’s not widely known, the cork industry is helping to sustain one of the world’s most biodiverse forests, including a number of endangered species such as the Iberian lynx and the Barbary deer. Spreading across 6.6 million acres in southern Europe (France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy) and northern Africa (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) oak cork trees Quercus suber are actually preserved and protected by the industry.
“First and foremost, the trees are not cut down; the outer bark is harvested, by hand, every 9 years. This allows the tree to consume 10 tons more carbon dioxide,” explains Patrick Spencer to mongabay.com. “The trees in these managed forests live 250-300 years. In maintaining sustainable farming practices, farmers ensure the health of the cork tress in this fragile eco-system.”
Patrick Spencer, director of Cork ReHarvest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Spencer.
Spencer is the director of an organization called Cork ReHarvest, which has provided another reason to buy cork: it’s recyclable. In fact, Cork ReHarvest is working to bring a cork recycling drop-off near you, if it hasn’t done so already (see below for details).
“Cork is a natural, environmentally friendly product,” Spencer says. “By recycling cork, we reduce the amount of product going into landfills and create ‘green jobs’. The recycling also brings awareness to the Mediterranean cork forests and their importance to the planet’s ecological health.”
If cork stoppers are replaced by aluminum or plastic caps it will place the rich ecosystems of the cork forests in jeopardy: without providing jobs and income, the forests would likely be converted in many areas. Currently, the cork industry employs 100,000 people across the Mediterranean.
In addition, according to Spencer cork is far and away the ‘greenest’ option for wine bottles. For example, aluminum screwcaps cannot be recycled like cork because “the plastic closure in the top of the cap and the size of the screwcap make it almost impossible to recycle.”
Spencer adds that “the mining for Bauxite, from which aluminum is made, remains one of the most environmentally harmful mining practices in the world. The production of screwcaps gives off 24 times more greenhouse gasses than producing one cork as well as using 10 times more energy.”
Plastic is little better: its greenhouse gas emissions are 10 times that of cork and plastic is hardly biodegradable or sustainable like cork.
“[Cork] has been the closure of choice for 300 years,” Spencer says. “All of the great vintage wines that collectors have purchased or won at auction have been closed with natural cork. Recently, a very rare bottle of Bordeaux sold at auction for $25,000.00. The winner put their faith in that little piece of wood, that the bottle of wine was still drinkable. That should tell you something about cork.”
INTERVIEW WITH PATRICK SPENCER
Mongabay: What is your background?
Workers harvesting cork. Photo courtesy of Patrick Spencer.
Patrick Spencer: I have spent the last 30 years in the food and beverage industry. As a chef/owner my goals were always to use locally harvested and produced foods, to ensure that whatever products that were not local, were Fair Trade and from sustainable producers. As a member of the Slow Foods movement I have always envisioned a more sustainable, community committed life style. Working in the wine industry has given me the opportunity to learn firsthand, about the process from vine to bottle, to learn about the benefit of the cork closure and cork’s importance to the world’s biosphere. As a Sustainability Team member at Willamette Valley Vineyards, I became involved in the wineries FSC compliance and cork sourcing. In Portugal I spent time in the cork forests learning firsthand about cork farming practices and efforts to maintain sustainable forests. I also spent time in the cork manufacturing facilities watching the craftsmanship that is at the heart of the Portuguese cork industry.
Mongabay: How did the organization Cork ReHarvest come about?
Patrick Spencer: In researching cork for Willamette Valley Vineyards, I learned a great deal about the Mediterranean cork forests and about the billions of natural corks that come to the US each year. I soon realized there were two issues surrounding cork: 1) 99% of corks end up in landfills. 2) There is a great deal of misinformation about cork and the cork forests. In working with the Rainforest Alliance, Whole Foods Markets and Western Pulp, we developed a pilot program to collect and recycle natural wine corks in the Pacific Northwest. Starting with the 11 WFM stores in Washington and Oregon, the program not only collects and recycles cork, but does so without increasing our carbon footprint. Since that time (February 2009) we have expanded to Whole Foods Market stores throughout the US and Canada. We have added partners such as Harrah’s Entertainment, Cork Supply USA as well as wineries across America.
CORK FORESTS AND HARVESTING
Mongabay: Where are the world’s cork forests and what makes them unique?
The beauty of a oak cork forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Spencer.
Patrick Spencer: Approximately 6.6 million acres of cork forest extend across the Mediterranean, including Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France. These oak forests support one of the world’s highest levels of forest biodiversity, second only to the Amazon Rainforest. It is also a vital source of income for thousands of family farmers, who for generations have worked these forests. The cork forests of the Mediterranean have been classified by the UN as one of the 25 Biodiversity Hot Spots (a biodiversity hotspot is a biogeography region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is threatened with destruction).
Mongabay: What are some important species inhabiting these forests?
Patrick Spencer: The Iberian Lynx (the most critically endangered feline in the world), Iberian Imperial Eagle, Barbary Deer, Black-shouldered Kite, Corn Bunting, also, millions of North European bird species make their winter home in the cork forests.
Mongabay: Most forest-related extractive industries damage the forest. Why does the harvesting of cork not hurt the forest?
Patrick Spencer: First and foremost, the trees are not cut down; the outer bark is harvested, by hand, every 9 years. This allows the tree to consume 10 tons more carbon dioxide. The trees in these managed forests live 250-300 years. In maintaining sustainable farming practices, farmers ensure the health of the cork tress in this fragile eco-system.
Mongabay: How many people does cork harvesting currently employ?
Showing off a cork harvest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Spencer.
Patrick Spencer: The cork industry employs an estimated 100,000 people throughout the Mediterranean region. The majorities are employed in harvesting and production, but the cork sector also employs thousands involved in associated industries like nurseries, transportation and research.
Mongabay: Why is it important to recycle cork?
Patrick Spencer: Cork is a natural, environmentally friendly product. By recycling cork, we reduce the amount of product going into landfills and create “green jobs.” The recycling also brings awareness to the Mediterranean cork forests and their importance to the planet’s ecological health.
Mongabay: What is the process of recycling cork?
Patrick Spencer: Generally the cork is ground up and used in a number of consumer and industrial products. Some examples are: cork floor tile, gaskets for the automotive industry, shoe beds, wine shippers, decorative items and the ever present cork board.
Mongabay: Why is cork a better choice than a plastic or aluminum cap on wine bottles?
Patrick Spencer: Cork is renewable, sustainable, natural and environmentally friendly. It has been the closure of choice for 300 years. All of the great vintage wines that collectors have purchased or won at auction have been closed with natural cork. Recently, a very rare bottle of Bordeaux sold at auction for $25,000.00. The winner put their faith in that little piece of wood, that the bottle of wine was still drinkable. That should tell you something about cork.
Though aluminum can be recycled, aluminum screwcaps aren’t. The plastic closure in the top of the cap and the size of the screwcap make it almost impossible to recycle. The mining for Bauxite, from which aluminum is made, remains one of the most environmentally harmful mining practices in the world. The production of screwcaps gives off 24 times more greenhouse gasses than producing one cork as well as using 10 times more energy.
Unlike natural corks, many synthetic wine closures are made from materials that are not biodegradable and are not sustainably sourced. Disadvantages of synthetic corks include; a difficulty in extracting them from the bottle, the inability to use the plastic cork to reseal the wine, and that some can also impart a slight chemical flavor to the wine.
CO2 emissions per 1000 stoppers: Aluminum 37.161 grams, Plastic 14.716 grams, and Cork 1.437 grams.
Mongabay: What else is cork used for–or could it be used for—aside from capping wine bottles?
The cork forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Spencer.
Patrick Spencer: There are thousands of products being manufactured in companies all over the world. Including, shoes beds, automotive gaskets, wall covering, insulation, furniture and the ever present cork board. One of the most amazing facts about the cork industry is that, there is zero waste in the production of cork closures.
Mongabay: How much cork has your organization recycled since your beginnings in 2008?
Patrick Spencer: In our first year, we collected 1.5 million corks, or approximately 5 tons. We expect the program to grow 10 fold this year.
Mongabay: If someone is not close to a cork recycling location is there anything they can do?
Patrick Spencer: We are working to develop more collection and recycling centers as the program grows, please check our website as we are adding partners daily.
Mongabay: How do you spread the word about cork?
Patrick Spencer: I’m trying to save the world, one bottle of wine at a time. Please visit our website: www.corkreharvest.org.
Mongabay: How can people help out cork forests?
Patrick Spencer: Ask your local wine retailer and restaurateur to commit to purchasing wines from wineries that only use natural cork. Please make a tax deductable contribution to Cork ReHarvest at our website.
Black-shouldered kite (Elanus caeruleus). Photo by: JM Garg.
(01/11/2010) In a kick-off event for the UN’s Year of Biodiversity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, compared the importance of saving biodiversity to stopping climate change.
(11/25/2009) A study by Britain’s Forestry Commission found that planting 23,000 hectares of forest every year for the next 40 years would lower the island nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, according to reporting by the BBC.
(09/03/2009) By investing billions in conserving natural areas now, governments could save trillions every year in ecosystem services, such as natural carbon sinks to fight climate change, according to a European report The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).