“Cork harvesting is like sheering sheep,” said Patrick Spencer as he sat down to discuss his non-profit organization, Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, over coffee. Cork farming and production is the most sustainable forest industry in the world. Yet, in the last 20 years or so, misinformation has plagued it. Demand has shifted away from cork toward plastic closures or aluminum screw-tops among wineries. One of the most common misconceptions is that the cork oak trees are logged like other timber industries. Without adequate demand for cork closures in wine, the forests are at risk of being neglected and not replanted for use.” There are millions of acres of cork forest that are in jeopardy of going away, because the public knows very little about them and there’s no connection,” lamented Patrick.
The world’s cork forests span over seven countries in the Mediterranean basin (see map below). The climate of these regions is typically arid and dry, lacking nutrient-rich soil. The cork trees thrive nonetheless, and their forests host the third largest biodiversity in the world after the Amazonian and Indonesian rain forests. Not only are the cork trees important for plants, insects, and animals but are also an essential part of local village economies. Cork harvesting has been occurring for generations, and is often done on family farms. “The culture behind the people of the cork forest is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. These people don’t just go do a job, and then do something else. Cork is their livelihood, it’s woven into their societal fabric,” said Patrick with admiration.
When making corks for wineries, the stoppers are punched out of the harvested bark and then sorted by visual quality. Traditionally, the sorting step tends to be a woman’s job, since she is thought to have a better eye and patience for selection. Triple-A quality cork describes a product with a small amount of those tiny lines called lenticels. Patrick remembers being at a factory, watching a worker punch out the cork by hand, and how he gave each motion the utmost care. “He did it with the enthusiasm and care that you’d normally see in a new person on the job, but he’d been doing it for 30 years.” The process takes a wide variety of laborers to add different touches along the way, but boasts the highest pay for agricultural workers in Europe. Even donkeys do their share, as the bark is brought down from the trees located high in the mountainous regions of Spain.
Patrick and the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance seek to educate the American public about the life-cycle of cork, thus dispelling any negative myths about it. Indirectly, this is to increase demand among buyers. After all, the United States consumes the most wine by volume in the world, giving U.S. wine consumers the power to make a huge impact with their spending. “When wineries choose cork over plastic or screw-top, cork farmers are more likely to plant new trees,” said Patrick. Cork is an often an overlooked product, and it will surely take a large publicity campaign to inform people of its benefits, as well as to debunk any myths surrounding its production or contaminating effects, such as TCA (Trichloranisole).
TCA, an otherwise harmless chemical agent sometimes found in wine. It is the musty wet cardboard smell that affects a small amount of bottles. Some people have an acute nose for it, and some don’t notice it at all. For wineries, where even the most subtle taste or fragrance can alter the product’s effect on the palate, TCA is offensive to their craft.
It was originally thought that TCA was introduced into wine through cork but it has since been found that TCA can stem from all sorts of things along the production path (including cork) e.g., barrels for storage, drainage pipes, wooden pallets. Then why does cork usually get the blame? “Until the cork industry invested 10’s of millions of Euros on research to find the cause and eradication of TCA, the cork was considered the only culprit. Wine writers have not taken into consideration these advancements in quality control and continue to quote outdated and erroneous information,” said Patrick rolling his eyes. “They exaggerate the TCA problem, and blame it on cork, which then becomes gospel. Yet, none of them have been able to provide me with their sources to back these quantities when I email an inquiry.”
In the modern global economy, there aren’t many truly sustainable industries like cork. It is rare when a product’s consumption contributes to the natural environment rather than taking away from it. Along with the age-old practice of sheering the bark without harming the tree, there are many other aspects of cork production that take up efficient resource management. First, no mechanical tools are used in the harvesting process, which saves fuel and energy. Second, cork was traditionally boiled to remove impurities, but over last ten years, manufacturers have been steaming it instead, and installing water treatment plants for reclamation. “This has significantly lowered their water usage and is cost saving,” noted Patrick.
One of the ways that the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance brings consumer awareness to the issue is by partnering with Whole Foods Markets and other retailers to promote their carbon-neutral Cork Reharvest Recycling Program. People can bring in their corks to drop boxes, which are then back-hauled on empty trucks going to Whole Foods distribution centers. From there, they’re picked up by FedEx trucks passing by en route to their destinations, which include a stop at the cork recycling partners. As you can imagine this takes remarkable coordination but adds virtually no carbon to the environment. The recycled products end up being floor tiles, shipping containers, cork-boards, and even bird houses. This defines the term “upcycling” and creates demand for a product that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
Regardless, there is competition for this post-consumption cork. With a simple Internet search looking for cork recycling, ReCork is the first recycling program that appears on Google. According to Patrick, ReCork “is at the pinnacle of green washing.” The program is run by Canadian footwear company, Sole, who receives their cork from all over the U.S. and Canada via drop box locations. “The cork shipments pick up a carbon footprint as they are shipped from all over the country to a granulating factory in Maryland, and then put into containers where they’re sent to China to be made into foot beds. Eventually, they are shipped back to Sole’s manufacturing plant in Canada and by then have picked up a pretty hefty carbon footprint,” informs Patrick. On their website, Sole claims that they use UPS carbon neutral shipping to eradicate this negative impact. However, Patrick still believes that this isn’t an effective way to counter the carbon currently being released into the atmosphere with each shipment.
Cork is a natural wood, so it technically doesn’t need to be recycled. If you put cork in a landfill it will slowly biodegrade over time and sequester about 12 grams of CO2 per closure. For waste management purposes, it’s still more beneficial to reduce the amount of product going into our landfills by recycling, which lowers overall fuel usage and land consumption.
Along with the great work that cork does for the environment, it’s beneficial to those who live nearby just by existing. “There’s a story to be told here,” said Patrick.
Check out Cork Forest Conservation Alliance’s Eco-Tour, which hosts visits to the cork forests in Spain and the surrounding villages. Read The New York Times’ travel review about it here.
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