Land | Ecotrope

Oregon nonprofits uncork new recycling options

Ecotrope | Sept. 27, 2010 12:10 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:46 p.m.

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My personal wine cork-recycling program consists of kitchen-drawer hoarding with intentions of hot-glued cork boards (see photo below). My college roommate used to loop our corks into funky mobiles and hang them from the light fixtures. But there’s only so much room in the house for that kind of craftiness.

Turns out, Cork ReHarvest has a more practical alternative. The Salem-based nonprofit has been collecting and recycling natural wine-bottle corks with Corvallis-based Western Pulp since 2008, and it recently expanded its network of collection centers to all 292 Whole Foods locations in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom. Portland-based New Seasons markets have signed on to accept used corks, too.

There are three recycling centers that take the corks and turn them into reusable products:

  • Western Pulp in Corvallis grinds them up and mixes them with recycled newspaper to make shipping boxes for the wine industry;
  • Yemm & Hart uses them to make cork floor tile in St. Louis, Mo.; and
  • Jelinek Cork in Oakville, Ontario, turns them into packing material and a variety of industrial and consumer cork products.

The hitch is that they only accept natural corks. And believe it or not there is a battle between plastic and natural cork producers over market share that has spilled over into the environmental realm.

I read a fascinating story in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year about how one plastic cork company effectively knocked natural cork producers off their throne of 400 years with a blend of new technology and moxie. The natural cork industry is fighting back and using the environmental benefits of their corks as a way to woo customers.

One group even reached out to Prince Charles, who backed their campaign to save Europe’s cork forests and called plastic corks “nasty plastic plugs” in a speech several years ago, WSJ reported.

Natural cork grows on cork oak trees in Portugal and Spain, mostly. It’s harvested by hand without killing the trees – like shearing a sheep – and advocates say the industry keeps the trees from being cut down. Plastic corks are produced in factories and favored by some because they cut back the number of wine bottles tainted by contaminated corks. But they’re not as easily recycled as the natural cork.

Old wine-cork recycling option: Crafts. New option: Floor tile, shipping boxes and packing material if you return them to Whole Foods or New Seasons.

Old wine-cork recycling option: Crafts. New option: Floor tile, shipping boxes and packing material if you return them to Whole Foods or New Seasons.

According to Cork ReHarvest Executive Director Patrick Spencer, cork trees live up to 250 years in a nine-year harvest rotation, and there’s plenty to go around. The amount of cork in Spain and Portugal today could fill every wine bottle in the world for 100 years.

The Mediterranean cork forests are also high in biodiversity, he says. They’re home to the endangered Iberian Lynx, Iberian Imperial eagle and Barbary deer. And they provide income to thousands of family farmers in the region.

Those are a few of the arguments being used to counteract the trend reported by the WSJ:

“…over the past 10 years, an estimated 20% of the bottle stopper market has been replaced by a new technology—plastic corks that cost between 2 and 20 cents apiece. More than one in 10 full-sized wine bottles sold worldwide now come with a Nomacorc plug, while another 9% or so come from other plastic cork makers. Screw caps took another 11% of the market.”

The Journal’s online poll did show 97 percent of the respondents preferred natural cork, and many of the comments below cited environmental or economic benefits as a reason.

Other reasons included the “pop,” the texture and, my favorite, the romance.

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