Putting a Cork In It

As a sustainability intern at Local First Arizona, I have been working to transform the way local businesses approach sustainability. Naturally (pun intended), recycling has become a hot topic of discussion. What is recyclable? Why aren’t these things recyclable? Where can I recycle? I have been asked nearly every question in the book during my time with LFA, some easier to answer than others. One item that had me stumped was the seal that preserves a favorite beverage, wine corks. With innovative re-purposers active in our local community like the folks of Refresh Glass who transform used wine bottles into trendy glassware, I assumed someone had to have a better alternative to the landfill for corks. Here is what I learned.

Photo from www.corkforest.org

The large majority of natural cork comes from the cork tree forests in Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France.  The trees are not chopped down in the process; harvesters simply peel back the bark which comprises the cork.  Once stripped, the trees will be left untouched for nine years until their cork is sufficient enough to harvest once again.  Many environmentalists believe cork harvesters to be wildlife stewards, arguing “that the cork industry is essential to the survival of Mediterranean cork forests; without it, these important natural habitats -- home to endangered species like the Iberian lynx -- would likely fall prey to fire and desertification.”  So by uncorking bottles, you may just be preserving one of the greatest ecosystems on planet Earth.

Now that I understood the sustainable, corks2renewable process of producing cork, I wondered where do the 13 billion natural wine corks sold in the world each year end their lives?  And what about the alternative wine stoppers out there?

To explore the fate of natural corks, screw caps, and synthetic alike, I reached out to restaurateurs  Upward Projects who allowed me to collect their corks for a month. When all was said and done, we collected over 20 pounds of corks and caps.  The majority of toppers were natural corks, but I also collected a fair amount of synthetic corks and screw caps.  Now I was faced with the task of determining the soundest resting ground for my collection.

wine screw capAluminum screw caps:  Most recycle plants cannot successfully recycle the caps because they  fall through the siphoning equipment or the magnets used to attract metals in the process do not pick them up.  To ensure that they make it through the process, you can smash them down and place them inside a larger piece of metal.


Synthetic corks: These are neither recyclable nor compostable making reuse the only option for these stoppers.


Natural corks: 100% recyclable but these wine stoppers do not belong in your standard blue bin as most commercial recycling facilities are not built to handle cork.  Cork Reharvest has collection boxes  in grocery stores, wine and bottle shops, and winery tasting rooms across the country. Visit their website to find a location near you.

The corks I collected ended up staying local, as they were donated to the Art Resource Center. This Tempe nonprofit is an amazing resource where artists, educators, crafters and anyone interested can find supplies to create art or work on projects.  These corks, previously destined for the landfill, will likely find new life in the hands of makers.

My hope is this tidbit of information will allow you to be a more educated consumer and think twice before (and after!) you enjoy a nice bottle of wine. It's easy to set aside your corks and there are plenty of ways to keep them out of the landfill. Cheers!