January 02, 2019 4 min read

Cork is a material I previously knew little about. I’m neither a big wine drinker, nor had any other reason to be super familiar with the material. Once I started to learn about cork, however, I was amazed by the magic material and all its properties.

Cork is at the top of the list among cruelty-free, sustainable, and eco-friendly materials. The cork trees are never cut down - and harvesting the cork is actually good for the trees and the environment.

We started 42 Birds - named after the abundance of bird species the cork forests support - to help create awareness and demand for cork. What I have since learned is many people have strong misconceptions about cork that need to be addressed. I get questions like,  “Aren’t cork trees endangered?”, “Isn’t there a cork storage?” and “Doesn’t harvesting cork kill trees?”.

These are unfortunate myths, mostly spread by the wine industry, as they’ve moved to cheaper alternatives. I feel it’s import to debunk these myths so that everyone can understand how truly amazing cork is. Here are the top myths I hear and the true facts you should know:

MYTH #1: There’s a cork shortage

No, there is not a shortage of cork. There’s enough cork on the planet today to seal all the wine in the world for the next 100 years. Cork is a fully sustainable and renewable natural resource, unlike other types of products sourced from trees.

Living up to 300 years, the cork oak is the gift that keeps on giving; its bark is harvested without causing damage to the tree, and grows back to be harvested again after nine years. So, while demand for cork bark products can temporarily outstrip supply, it will not lead to a shortage of cork.

In fact, such a situation can only lead to an increase in cork, as more cork oak trees are planted and harvested to meet demand.

"Cork extraction is one of the most environmentally-friendly harvesting processes in the world - not a single tree is cut down to get the cork. This tradition can survive, as long as demand for cork stays high, if not, the cork forests will disappear - and with them, a unique cultural and natural heritage"

- Pedro Regato, WWF Mediterranean Head of Forest unit.

MYTH #2: Cork trees are endangered

In the last ten years, the increase in screw caps has created a decrease in demand for real corks. The cork industry has become endangered because of this — not the trees themselves. About 70% of all cork harvested has traditionally been harvested for wine cork production, so if the demand dries up, it affects the whole system negatively.

However, with the wine industry moving away from the cork, other uses for the amazing material are on the rise and demand for cork is rebounding.

MYTH #3: Harvesting cork kills trees

Cork is harvested on a sustainable basis and the stripping of the bark does not harm the tree in any way. The bark grows back completely, taking on a smoother texture after each harvest. A cork oak tree can be safely harvested up to 20 times during its life cycle, making cork a truly inexhaustible natural resource.

Portugal, which produces more than 50% of the world's cork, has been particularly careful to safeguard this valuable resource. The first Portuguese laws protecting cork oak trees date back to the 14th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it became illegal to cut down cork oak trees, except for essential thinning or the removal of old, non-productive trees.

Harvesting cork, not only doesn’t harm the tree, it’s actually good for the trees. Stripping a cork oak of its bark also enhances its ability to absorb carbon dioxide; the seven million acres of cork forest around the Mediterranean offset 20 million tons of CO2 each year.

The cork forests of Portugal, the world’s leading supplier of cork, feature some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. According to the World Wildlife Fund, these forests contain the highest levels of plant diversity found anywhere in the world—reaching levels of 135 species per square meter—while also providing a habitat for endangered animal species like the Iberian lynx and Barbary deer.

Demand for cork products, especially wine stoppers, helps preserve the cork forests, which would otherwise be neglected or replaced with non-native trees.

MYTH #4: Screwtop wine and plastic wine stoppers are better for the environment

Metal screw caps are not biodegradable. Because of their small size, there are currently no recycling facilities in the U.S. that accept them. The manufacturers of aluminum metal screw caps often utilize toxic materials, and in comparison to the production of a natural cork, 24 times more greenhouse gasses are released and over 10 times more energy is used when making one screw cap.

Plastic closures are made from petro-chemicals, many of which pose potential health risks if not carefully monitored and controlled. They are not biodegradable and are rarely recycled. They are not sourced from a sustainable product and generate 10 times more greenhouse gasses than natural cork to produce.

“(…) a seemingly simple decision taken by several wine producers to use synthetic closures instead of natural cork stoppers has a long-term impact. Understanding the reason why someone wants to find a synthetic and ugly cap in the neck of a bottle is something that is beyond me. However, this practice is causing serious changes in the cork oak forests in Portugal and Spain."

-Prince Charles

MYTH #5: Non-cork stoppers are better for the wine

Since the 17th century, corks have been used to close bottles of wine. Cork is a natural substance that slowly allows oxygen into the bottle – beneficial when aging. The downside of cork is that it is expensive and sometimes can affect the wine with a taint over time.

The push towards screw-caps is mostly cost-related. Cork, while a wonderful product, is much more expensive than a screw-cap. Plus, more tests have been done that confirm the screw-cap’s legitimacy for long-term wine aging. All that said, cork still seems to be the choice for a winemaker that wants to make a “world-class” statement.