Pop the cork in support of nature

Ever since screw caps and plastic ‘corks’ came into the wine world, there has been a longstanding discussion, which out of the three options – cork, plastic, metal – is better. Everyone, at least once in their lifetime, has feared to get corked wine, though it doesn’t apply to this 170 year old champagne. Once you discover a stunning and unique biodiversity and ecosystem that stands behind the cork in your wine bottle, your choice will be as natural as cork.

Although the cork has been used as a wine stopper for more than 400 years, since 1980’s the popularity of metal screw-caps and plastic ‘corks’ have increased between vintners and wine consumers. Despite the fact that aluminium screw caps are recyclable, if they are put into a recyclable bin, their production process is far less environmentally friendly, than cork. As OnEarth assesses:

“Producing aluminium screw tops emits 24 times the carbon dioxide equivalent of cork stoppers, according to a PriceWaterhouse Coopers lifecycle study of all three closure types.”

My Good Planet has already looked at damage done to the environment by plastic. Though plastic caps have lower carbon footprint than metal ones; they are not nearly as recyclable as aluminium. Hence considering environmental factors, cork wins; it is fully biodegradable and its harvest is fully sustainable. From economical standpoint, cork loses; aluminium and plastic caps are a lot cheaper. However, an invaluably important factor here is the biodiversity and the unique ecosystem that exists thanks to cork oak forests. According to OnEarth above mentioned article:

“[…] only cork is integral to a sustainable silvicultural history that stretches back several hundred years and continues to this day.”

Corks are made from the bark of cork oaks (Quercus Suber), these tree species grow exclusively in coastal Mediterranean areas of Southwest Europe and Northwest Africa in a unique habitat called: cork oak savanna. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) states that cork oak forests cover 2.7 million hectares of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, and France. Together these forests support the second highest level of forest biodiversity in the world, with the Amazon rainforest being first. WWF notes that the cork oak forests:

“[…] support one of the world’s highest levels of forest biodiversity, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx, the Iberian imperial eagle, the Barbary deer, many species of rare birds as well as many fungi, ferns and other plants. […] Cork oak forests also play a key role in maintaining watersheds, preventing erosion and keeping soils healthy. They are a great example of balanced conservation and economic development. Their preservation is vital for the well-being of the Mediterranean region.”

It is important to note that Iberian lynx is the world’s most endangered feline species. Though the conservation effort taken to prevent Iberian lynx from extinction has seen its population growing from 100 individuals in 2002 to 404 in 2015, its future is still fragile. WWF notes that one of the ways you can help Iberian lynx is “Put a cork in it! Help protect the Iberian lynx’s habitat by planting a cork tree.”

The harvesting of cork is quite fascinating, and it doesn’t involve cutting down trees. In fact, humans and cork harvesting plays a vital part in the cork oak savanna ecosystem, according to this research:

“Mediterranean cork oak savannas, which are found only in Southwestern Europe and Northwestern Africa, are ecosystems of high socioeconomic and conservation value. Characterized by sparse tree cover and a diversity of understory vegetation – ranging from shrub formations to grasslands – that support high levels of biodiversity, these ecosystems require active management and use by humans to ensure their continued existence. The most important product of these savannas is cork, a non-timber forest product that is periodically harvested without requiring tree felling.” (emphasis added by the author)

If cork oak forests aren’t taken care of by humans, the landscape is quickly overrun by shrubs, thus increasing the risk of wildfires, which can create permanent damage to this ecosystem. The lack of shrubs creates higher plant diversity in this ecosystem, thus helping it to thrive. In addition, shaving the cork oak from its bark helps it to observe more carbon dioxide:

“Cork oak trees in Portugal alone help offset 10 million tons of carbon every year. Cork trees are also important producers of oxygen.”

No wonder that the cork oak is the national tree of Portugal, and cork forests or ‘montados’ in Portuguese have been protected by law since the 13th century.

Corks are made from a dead tissue layer in the oak’s outer bark that evolved to protect the tree from the fire. Cork oaks can live up to 200 years, and every year they grow a new layer of cork, however the first harvest of the cork can be done only when the tree is around 30 years old and can be repeated only every 9 years. This means that several generations of one family might be harvesting cork from one tree. Even now, harvest is still done by hand using a special axe to shave the bark off the tree and the cork harvest has become an important part of Mediterranean culture and tradition. In addition, all the cork is used in one way or another; most of it (more than 80%) is used for bottle closures, the rest of it is used for building materials, making bags and other fashion accessories, creating various house items as well as fishing tackle, etc. etc.

Want to hear more about how a tree bark becomes a cork in your wine, and why it is important to choose cork over other alternatives watch this TEDx talk by Patrick Spencer, an executive director of The Cork Forest Conservation Alliance.

Before you get your next bottle of wine, check your wine on CORKwatch, a database of wines with natural corks. Remember, pop your cork and celebrate nature.