Is Cork A Sustainable Material?

The sustainability of a material is always important to consider when using or purchasing a product. Is cork eco-friendly you might ask yourself? Well let’s take a look at its properties, origin and how it decomposes.

So, let’s start with the basics, where does Cork come from?

Lightweight, elastic, hydrophobic, chemically inert, and impermeable to gasses and liquids, cork has been harvested and used for millennia; by ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks for wine stoppers, footwear, and even as a building material for ships and buildings. The Cork Oak tree, Quercus suber, a member of the Oak family, is native to Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and the south of France. They can live up to 200 years old, and due to its unique ability to regenerate its outer bark, this layer, the cork, can be harvested harmlessly to no cost to the health of the tree- every 9-12 years, up to 16 times over its life, starting from 25 years old. Because of this ability, it is one of the most sustainable woods on the planet, unlike other trees that need to be felled to make use of the wood.

Moreover, Cork Oak trees function as an excellent form of carbon capture. Annually, in the cork growing regions of the world, harvested trees account for the absorption of up to 10 million tonnes of carbon-  up to five times more than the un-harvested counterparts, as the trees use extra carbon to regenerate bark. Another benefit of growing cork oak is that the trees don’t require irrigation, pesticides or fertilisers; meaning that the process doesn’t damage the natural ecosystems in which they are grown. Indeed, quite the opposite. These plantations and forests are some of the most bio-diverse environments on the earth, hosting endangered species including the Iberian lynx, Iberian imperial eagle and the Barbary deer as well as having the highest diversity of plants found anywhere in the world.

What is cork commonly used for?

In hospitality, it is most famously known for its use in wine stoppers, though coasters, placemats and bowls are also made out of cork for its decorative properties. In sports, cork is used to create shuttlecocks, cricket balls, baseballs, pool sticks, bodyboards, whistles, and tennis paddles. And commercially, cork is used in conjunction with leather for many pieces of stationery, bags, mats, and more.

You can also find cork being used in construction and technology. Cork agglomerate and decorative cork is used in ceilings, wall tiles, roofs, and as internal insulation for commercial builds, as well as for offices, and even submarines and warships for the insulation of ventilation equipment and steam pipes. Even machinery and weapons can contain components made of cork. Further still, it can be used in concrete structures for expansion and compression joints. That means cork can be used in the construction of tunnels, dams, and other concrete structures – all this shows how diverse and adaptable this material is!

One example of its use in construction can be seen in the Cork House in Berkshire, England. It was designed to be easily dismantled, reused or recycled. Read all about it here.

So now we know the many benefits, how exactly is cork harvested? 

Cork harvesting requires extensive skill, experience and expertise. Harvesters wait until the appropriate season, mid-May until the end of August, during the active growth season to harvest, minimising harm done to the tree. This is where experience, care and precision come in handy- they must make sure not to damage the vessels that provide it with sap, otherwise this could seriously damage the tree’s ability to regenerate its bark, or even kill it.

To harvest the cork, Bourrassé explains that they methodically follow four steps:

– Split the bark lengthwise to open it up. The edges of the future planks are thus defined;

– Separate the cork from the inner bark, i.e., the layer that protects the wood;

– Make a horizontal cut this time to carve out the plank of cork;

– Delicately remove the cut plank straight from the tree.

After harvesting, the thick cylindrical layers of removed bark, they are boiled to soften and clean the bark, dried in the sun, flattened, graded and cut into smaller more workable pieces.

How to find sustainably sourced/grown cork?

Though most Cork is grown sustainably, it’s worth looking out for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. Fortunately, since 2005,  all cork oak forests in Portugal, Spain, and Italy have become FSC-certified, so you’re safe buying cork manufactured in any of those countries!

According to the website, FSC forest management certification confirms that the forest is being managed in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers, while ensuring it sustains economic viability. FSC-certified forests are managed to strict environmental, social and economic standards. There are ten principles that any forest operation must adhere to before it can receive FSC forest management certification. These principles cover a broad range of issues, from maintaining high conservation values to community relations and workers’ rights, as well as monitoring the environmental and social impacts of the forest management.

So, to answer the question, is cork a sustainable material?

Yes! It is, just look out for the FSC certification, and go ahead and keep using this incredible material. Biodegradable, regenerative, and carbon capturing; the people involved are protected, as are the plants themselves, and it fosters the most amazing habitats for a plethora of biodiversity unique to the growing regions. So it helps the planet, provides a sustainable income for local economies, and has properties that make it suitable for use time and time again. It can easily be used in a circular economy after harvest because of its ease of recyclability, and retention of original properties after regeneration.

Now that you have an insight to cork and its amazing planet-friendly properties you may be considering what products are out there made of this fabulous material. Below are some of our favourite cork products that you can purchase through our Wearth website.

Willow Earth

Willow Earth work with manufacturing partners who offer fair wages, care for their workers and practise sustainable production. They are also partnered with One Tree Planted, so when you buy a rucksack, you will also be planting a tree.

Product values: Handmade, Sustainable Materials, Vegan Friendly

Glynde Cork Backpack: £85

This canvas and cork backpack is super sustainable and includes two pouches for iPads or tablets, and a zipped pocket, so no more rummaging around the bottom of your bag! It features a cork flap which is doubled packed with two pieces of material, making it sturdy, durable and also waterproof for those rainier months!

 

Cork Coin Purse: £12

Unique and handmade, this cork coin purse is great for the change that’s fallen to

the bottom of your bag or is jingling around in your pocket. Eco-friendly & cruelty-free, it’s small and easy to carry around with the sturdy cork material giving a  leathery feel, whilst also being vegan.

Cork Yogis

Cork Yogis create premium cork yoga mats providing the perfect non-slip, anti-bacterial and natural surface for your yoga practice. Due to the cork’s natural qualities, the grip increases when you sweat. The mats are perfect for all types of yoga including bikram, vinyasa and power yoga, they’re also very suitable for pilates and any sort of cardio exercises.

Alongside the sustainable values, at the heart of Cork Yogis is empowering women who have survived human trafficking in India. With every mat purchased, a contribution is made towards literacy and sewing courses and the bags are handmade by some of the women, providing them with much needed skills and employment.

Product Values: Social Contribution, Sustainable Materials, Vegan Friendly

Premium Cork Yoga Mat: £85

 

Classic Cork Yoga Mat: £65

 

Cork Yoga Block – Set Of 2: £30

These cork yoga blocks are a great assistant to your yoga practice, providing a comfortable and smooth block which provides some extra help to get better alignment in those forward and side bends. The round edged brick gives your posture some extra height to help increase flexibility.

Yuggen is a family run business started by Andrew & Nicole, helping everyday individuals to reduce their reliance on single-use plastic by providing a range of reusable and sustainable kitchen swaps to help beat the plastic crisis. With future generations in mind, the brand plants trees in Indonesia, Madagascar and Nepal for every product sold.

Product Values: Plastic Free, Social Contribution, Sustainable Materials, Vegan Friendly

Coffee Cup With Cork Sleeve: £17.99

A great option if you’re trying to cut down on plastic and single-use, this reusable cup comes with a cork sleeve that helps protect your hands for the hot glass. It can also be put in the dishwasher just make sure to remove the cork band before doing so!

Panda Packaging are on a mission to repackage the world and revive our oceans by empowering individuals to move away from single use plastics. By working with natural materials like coconut and bamboo, Panda Packaging are able to create everyday essentials that you will love and best of all the products are guilt free, zero waste, sustainable and reusable.

Storage bottles with cork lid: £9.50

These storage bottles are a must-have if you’re starting your zero waste journey or just trying to make your kitchen look more uniform. Completely plastic-free, using sustainable cork and glass, these containers are a great alternative to consider.

 

If you’re looking for more products that use sustainable materials and put the planet first then click here.