The largest cork manufacturer in the world, Portugal-based Amorim Group has been culling cork since 1870. The company produces a quarter of the world's 12 billion corks annually, and it grew increasingly upset in recent years at the profusion of its products ending up in landfills. Dedicated to a sustainable mission, the company hired Roger Archey to manage an initiative called ReCork America, based in the wine nexus of the U.S. Pacific Coast.

The program began two years ago as a pilot, with Archey visiting vineyards and asking for their used natural corks. When he gathered more than a half million stoppers, he knew ReCork was on to something. "We just keep growing ... in a crazy way," Archey says. "We picked up word-of-mouth connections with restaurants and volunteer organizations and collected over 2 million corks in our second year." His phone rings every day, he says, with another person looking to get involved, either giving him corks or taking them off his hands. Recently, Whole Foods was on the other end of the phone, offering to set up customer drop-off centers in its West Coast stores. "Since November, we've collected about 200,000 corks that way."

Amorim supports a storage facility in Northern California, where Archey waits to amass about six tons of natural cork to send to Portugal. A repurposing factory and Portuguese workforce awaits delivery to convert the stoppers into insulation, floor tiles or even shoe soles. ReCork would love to avoid the carbon footprint involved in shipping the corks around the world, though, and Archey is constantly searching for domestic applications for recycling. "I'm always giving corks to people for research and development," he says, partnering with landscapers to replace wood pulp with cork in playgrounds or even an Oregon company that integrates granulated cork into its paper pulp for shipping ... wine.

In the midst of this repurposing mission, Amorim hired consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to determine the most ecologically friendly stopper, convinced its product was superior to aluminum or plastic. The study found that competing stoppers consume natural resources and emit CO2 in the process, but cork retains 8.8 grams of the harmful gas throughout its life.
According to the study, "In comparison to the aluminum and plastic closures, the cork stopper is the best alternative in terms of nonrenewable energy consumption, emission of greenhouse effect gases, contribution to atmospheric acidification, contribution to the formation of photochemical oxidants, contribution to the eutrophication of surface water and total production of solid waste," though aluminum did come out ahead in terms of water consumption in production. Even considering the nonrenewable energy use in production, bottling or other aspects of winemaking, an aluminum screw cap and plastic stopper ultimately emit 24 and 10 times more CO2 than cork, respectively. This means the cork mulch or reclaimed bulletin board you buy not only lightens the load of a landfill, but also helps keep CO2 gases out of the atmosphere.
Even the extraction of cork is a green process. Rather than using up a resource like a plastic or aluminum closure, cork stoppers merely borrow from their host tree. Archey compares the harvest to shearing a sheep or peeling a banana, describing the sheets of bark that slide off the cork oaks every nine years once they've reached maturity.
It's not surprising that Americans have jumped at ReCork's mission. Wineries have offered him cork space in their empty delivery trucks for the return trip. Consumers are filling drop-off bins in droves, and the innovative uses for these products keep popping up on napkins after brainstorm sessions with businesses.
So how can the rest of us get involved? Archey wants ReCork to grow slowly and responsibly, so he isn't doing much long-range collection. Rather than waste the resources to mail him spare corks, he encourages faraway supporters to investigate other companies with a similar mission. After all, "there are plenty of corks to go around," Archey says, "and we're all trying to work together to do the right thing."

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MNN homepage photo: OtografiaBasica/iStockphoto 

Wine cork recycling takes root
ReCork America works to keep wine stoppers out of landfills and put them back in use as mulch, wine shipping containers and even shoe soles.