Cork: Why it's Awesome and Where to Recycle It

Take a quick look around the house and you’re sure to see cork pop up in some form or another, whether it be coasters, corkboard, shoes or wine stoppers. This 100% biodegradable, recyclable and renewable material is ubiquitous in our daily lives, yet so little is known of this utilitarian tree and its sustainable production method. 

The Unsung, Sustainable Hero of The Forest

We get cork from the outer bark of the cork (oak) tree which grows along the Mediterranean basin in seven million acres across seven countries:  Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. The trees require very little water to thrive, and their groves absorb millions of tons of CO2 each year which helps to combat global warming. Cork forests also support one of the world’s highest levels of forest biodiversity, second only to the Amazon Rainforest.

                                                                photocredit @ 100% Cork

Harvesting

Cork trees are protected under strict national legislation, and their harvesting is carefully executed by experienced, life-long cork farmers. The outer bark of the tree is skillfully removed by hand every nine years, the time it takes for the cork to renew itself.  Much like the shearing of sheep for wool, no trees are harmed during the removal process. It’s also a zero-percent waste industry, meaning that every single piece of the bark is used, making it the most fully sustainable and environmentally-friendly forestry practice today. 

Pop and Drop

You’re already recycling your wine and beer bottles, but are you recycling your natural corks? While corks are not recyclable in your curbside bin, companies like ReCork and Cork Forrest offer free, national drop-off programs where they’ll recycle your natural corks into more corks, or new products like shoes, yoga blocks, flooring and more. 

As America’s largest natural wine cork recycling program, ReCork provides collection boxes at national retailers such as BevMo! and MOM's Organic Market. There’s also a ton of mom-and-pop shops that participate in this national program, such as Noble Grape in Chicago. Check with ReCORK directly to find a location near you, or find alternative drop-off locations, such as Whole Foods, via Cork Forrest. * In light of covid, it’s always best to call ahead first to confirm your location is up-and-running.

IMPORTANT: Make sure your corks are pure cork, not the synthetic plastic kind. Remove any non-cork materials, like wires, beforehand.

What to do with synthetic corks?

If you find yourself with an abundance of synthetic wine corks, Terracycle does offer a Zero Waste Cork Box for a fee. See if you can get your local wine shop  or bar to participate, as they accept both natural and synthetic corks in the program. Otherwise, the fake guys go in the trash.

Composting Natural Corks

Most private compost services do not accept corks (confirm with yours). You could try to compost natural corks in your backyard compost, though they would take a very long time to break down. We have heard of people putting them in a blender to help speed up the process, though we’ve never tried it and would recommend against it if you care to keep your blender blades sharp.  

Reuse

Feeling handy? You’ve seen the myriad ways in which corks can be turned into something smart, and there’s no doubt as to why it’s such a popular craft. Cork is a sturdy, versatile and sustainable material that also looks great. 

Here are a few of our favorite reuse ideas from the web:

State-Shaped Wall Art by Brit + Co

Wine Cork Trivet via EveryDay Dishes

Cork Wreath via Ridge Wine

See other crafty DIY ideas here.

Want more on cork? Here’s an in-depth Ted Talk on the many wonders of cork with Cork ReHarvest’s Patrick Spencer.

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