Wine Cork Recycling and a Bigger Conversation

So I’m wandering through the wine section of a Whole Foods Market in Seattle, and I bump into a collection box for wine corks. “Help Put a Cork in Global Warming,” is the headline on the take-home literature perched on top of the box. The note is from Jim Bernau, founder of Oregon-based Willamette Valley Vineyards, which is leading the charge on “Cork ReHarvest,” a cork recycling and awareness campaign.

(Kim O'Donnel)

In addition to Whole Foods, where the collection boxes are stationed, Willamette has partnered up with the Rainforest Alliance (which offers a Forest Steward Council certification system for cork stoppers). Willamette Valley is the first winery to receive such certification, in 2005.

This project comes on the heels of another pilot program, ReCork America, which launched in northern California last fall. Sponsored by Portuguese cork manufacturer Amororim, ReCORK America has also partnered with Whole Foods, on a regional basis. (Great story on the project by San Francisco Chronicle wine writer Jon Benné )

It seems like it was just yesterday that we were hearing about a global cork shortage, which I have long thought was connected to the trend of synthetic stoppers, but as it turns out, the trend away from natural cork has been the result of economics (screw caps and plastic stoppers are cheaper) and the worry over “cork taint,” the stinky cork syndrome caused by mold, among other things.

Personally, I’ve had a romantic attachment to natural cork stoppers, and that’s what environmentalists are counting on to support recycling (and consumption) efforts. In May 2006, when the World Wildlife Fund published a report called “Cork Screwed,” more than 15 billion cork stoppers were produced annually; I’ve since learned that 18 billion is the going number.

The cork we know whenever we crack open a bottle of wine comes from the bark of cork oak trees (Quercus suber), which grow in forests in several Mediterranean countries, including Portugal (the biggest producer), Spain, Italy, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and France. The bark of the cork tree is stripped once a decade or so; the cork regenerates during its lifespan of 200-300 years. Cork forests are part of an enormous biosphere totaling 6.6 million acres, second to the Amazon Rainforest in scope and species diversity. (read the aforementioned WWF report for details.) The green community is arguing that if demand for natural cork continues to decline, then these forests will be subject to abandonment and forest fires, threatening the wildlife from within.

Cork can be reused for a variety of products, including packaging, flooring, shoe soles (Birkenstock) and insulation.

What’s your take: to cork or not? And have you seen these cork collection bins in your local Whole Foods? Sip on this matter and tell me what you think.

Join me and cooks across the country (and on three continents) next week on the Eating Down the Fridge Challenge! The frugality begins this Sunday, March 8, for a week-long experiment of using up what's in the fridge, freezer and pantry. To sign up, e-mail me, including your city, state and country (if applicable -- we've got EDFers in Australia, South Africa and Denmark!), and I'll include your name on the EDF Honor Roll.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 4, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Eco-Bites , Wine and Spirits
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I don't understand this -- if the fear is cork demand will decline, leading to deforestation, then why should one recycle corks? (I realize that recycling generally is a good thing).

As for corks in wine, yes, they're romantic but screw caps are a lot easier and cleaner, especially for "everyday" wines.

Posted by: ah___ | March 4, 2009 11:15 AM

Thanks, Kim, for this information and the clarification of the issues surrounding cork. I'll look forward to reading the entire report.

I do prefer natural cork in our wines, for aesthetic and practical reasons-- it is very difficult to remove synthetic corks from bottles, then to remove the synthetic cork from the corkscrew.

One quick note: I believe you meant to say that the Cork Screwed report is from the World Wildlife Fund. They have substantial credibility, so the use of their name carries weight.

Thanks for raising this issue.

Posted by: Agathist | March 4, 2009 12:00 PM

Oops, typo -- thanks Agathist! One thing I didn't mention -- but many already know -- plastic stoppers are petroleum based, cork stoppers from tree bark.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | March 4, 2009 12:30 PM

Would this make any practical sense for those who only drink one, or at most two bottles a week? I like corks, but primarily because (most) are nice to look at so we save them. Otherwise, bring on the screwcaps!

Posted by: Alice_Drew | March 4, 2009 4:15 PM

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