is cork environmentally friendly

 I’ll admit – I like wine.  Sauvignon blanc, Prosecco, Malbec and Merlot are my tipples of choice.  Come Friday night, after the baby is in bed, you’ll more often than not find me with a well-deserved glass of wine in my hand.

Over the past ten years, plastic stoppers and screw top wine bottles have infiltrated the wine market.  At first, when screw tops started appearing I thought “how convenient” – no more searching for a bottle opener, and no more corked wine.  However lately I’ve started to wonder “is cork eco friendly”, or are their screw top equivalents more environmentally friendly?

Is Cork Eco Friendly?

My initial thought was surely yes, screw tops are more environmentally friendly, as trees have to be cut down to extract cork, whereas metal can be recycled.  Then I started looking into it, and as it turns out I was completely wrong – cork is eco friendly as cork is one of the most sustainable materials in the world, and the dominance of screw tops on wine bottles is actually threatening ancient Mediterranean cork oak forests.  Screw tops and plastic stoppers also contribute to widespread environmental destruction.

You see, across Portugal, Southern France and Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Turkey are swathes of ancient cork oak forest.  These forests are home to endangered and rare species such as the Short-Toed Eagle, the Egyptian Mongoose, the Barbary deer and the Iberian Lynx, as well as biologically important flora and fungi.  The presence of the forest also prevents the soil from drying out and turning into a dust bowl.

You may be wondering how is cork eco-friendly if this is the case?  Well, to extract cork from cork oak trees you may be surprised to hear that not one single tree is cut down.  Instead, bark is peeled away and then the cork is carefully extracted by very highly skilled harvesters.  The trees are in no way damaged – the cork is naturally renewable and grows back after nine years – preserving the forest in it’s pristine entirety, and enabling perpetual harvesting with no damage to the forest or ecosystem.

natural cork harvest

This ability to renew itself is not the only superpower that cork possesses – cork is also completely biodegradable.  And from a social point of view cork extraction from oak is also a highly skilled job, in rural areas where jobs are hard to come by, which pays very well, and helping to support viable rural communities.

With the widespread infiltration of screw top wine bottle, the lack of demand for cork means the oak forests are losing their value.  A loss in value means the forests are more likely to be exploited in unsustainable ways – threatening the habitat of vulnerable species, threatening livelihoods and the viability of rural communities, and bringing the risk of areas turning into dustbowls.  Removal of trees also impacts on the ground – meaning flooding is more likely.  So cork is definitely the way forward.

I mentioned I initially thought aluminium screw tops were easily recycled – in fact it turns out screw tops are not widely recyclable – more often than not they are too small to be easily recycled, and plastic stoppers are not recyclable.    On top of this, mining for bauxite (the ore from which aluminium is produced) is one of the most damaging practices on earth – so screw tops contribute to this destructive practice.

The plastic seal on the inside of the screw top, and the plastic stopper can leach chemicals into the wine, causing taint and also can be damaging to human health, which isn’t too great either.

What can you do?  Well, it’s not difficult to help – just always try and buy wine with a cork in it!  For me it’s a good excuse to drink Prosecco as generally it is always stoppered with a natural cork!  So you can sit there, with a nice glass of sparkling wine, knowing that you are helping to preserve the forest; saving the habitat of the lynx, mongoose, eagle and host of animals; as well as providing precious jobs in rural areas.

If you’re not buying Prosecco or Champagne It can be difficult to tell if wine is stoppered with natural cork due to the foil covering – if in doubt shop at a quality wine merchant (my favourite is Wood Winters in Edinburgh) and ask.  The staff in these places are very knowledgeable about wine and will be able to direct you to natural cork stoppered wines.  WWF also have a handy list of wineries which support natural cork stoppers, and you can also look for the FSC (Forest Stewardship Certification) symbol on wine labels.   There’s also a 100% Cork Facebook page which you can join to show your support.

If you’re worried about your wine being corked, you might be surprised to hear that less than 1% of bottles of cork stoppered wines are tainted.  The move to plastic and screw top bottles was not to prevent corkage, but for financial reasons – these are cheaper to produce than paying highly skilled harvesters to source cork.  So fear not about your precious wine!

I hope that’s answered your question of is cork eco friendly!

Images: 1 / 2. Insatiable Blog

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