26 October 2011

Is Cork Screwed?

Cork oaks have been an important part of Portugal’s environment and economy for centuries. In the Alentejo region, you can spot them everywhere. About 32% of all cork oaks are grown and about 50% of all cork material is harvested right here in Portugal. The industry accounts for 60, 000 jobs and $1 billion in annual export, but its future is uncertain. The cork oak is a threatened species.
It’s an incredibly sustainable material, sort of like the wool of the tree world. You see, cork harvesting doesn’t necessitate killing the tree. The bark is shorn off, carefully, by hand and only once every nine years according to law. This allows the tree enough of a rejuvenation period to ensure a long life of production. The oaks live and can be harvested for 200 years, getting better even as it ages. Almost all are marked with the number of the last year it was harvested and it was interesting to see the bark at different stages of regrowth.
Since this year's harvest ended just two months ago, it runs from May to August, we’ve seen a lot of freshly stripped cork oaks. At first, we assumed their bright red color was a marking paint or some sort of post-extraction ointment. But that deep burnt amber is what the wood looks like. It’s beautiful to see fields of them, bright against the dry grass. It would be impossible to imagine the landscape – or its ecosystem – without them.
It’s always difficult to come to terms with the endangerment of a species. There are tons of reasons why forests are necessary, vital. But it feels almost silly that this particular tree would be threatened. I mean, it’s just so darn useful! Cork is malleable, its buoyant, its impermeable, it insulates, it’s even fire resistant. The industry surrounding it leaves just a tiny carbon footprint and almost all byproducts are recyclable. Plus, it makes a mean bulletin board.
The problem is, that 70% of its usage comes from the wine industry and people are turning more and more to alternative stoppers. I’m an enormous fan of twist tops, myself. Plastic ‘corks’ just seem dumb. Even though cork wine stoppers have two of the sexiest attributes you could possibly market, they’re both the greenest and most traditional choice, their use is declining. Hearing the pop is only so fun if the wine has been ruined by ‘corking.’ So, Portugal has launched a campaign called “100% cork,” giving restaurants and bars a catchy way to tout their allegiance to cork and filling roadstop gift shops with all sorts of cork memorabilia. There are ashtrays, cups, bowls, place mats. Ice buckets seem like a particularly good idea. We still can’t tell if the hats, pencil cases and messenger bags just look like they’re made from the material or not.
An unfortunate casualty in all of this is the Iberian lynx, who lives exclusively in cork oak forests and is now one of the most endangered cat species in the world. Producers of plastic bottle stoppers and twist-tops argue that Portugal isn’t as concerned with the environment as it is their economy. Too be honest, I’m concerned about both and I’m sort of counting on the wine snobs of the world, who simply can’t bear to lose the ritual of twisting in that corkscrew, to carry Portugal through. And Birkenstock.


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