Put a (Wine) Cork in it!

cork ball photo
Image Source: CorkTruck.com

Dear Pablo: It seems that alternatives to traditional bottle corks are gaining in popularity but are they a more eco-friendly option?Today you can find wine closures ranging from the traditional cork to synthetic corks and aluminum screw top closures. Even the traditional glass bottle itself has been replaced by some wineries with plastic wine bottle-shaped bottles, TetraPaks, and "Bag-in-Box" packages. While many of the packaging innovations are the result of efforts in shipping weight reduction, the new closures are motivated by a number of different factors.

Alternatives to cork
Since 90 percent of the annual 340,000 ton cork production comes from Europe (Portugal 52 percent, Spain 32 percent, Italy six percent) the energy used, emissions created, and cost of shipping corks to wine-producing regions in New Zealand and Australia are not insignificant. According to Tyler Colman, of DrVino.com, "almost whole countries, such as New Zealand, are bottling under screw caps now." In addition to this, the aluminum screw caps are readily recyclable in current recycling systems, that may not be equipped to accept used corks. Another problem with cork is that it can lead to "cork taint," from the presence of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which imparts an aroma similar to a moldy rag. According to the cork industry's association, APCOR, the rate of cork taint is around 1%, while Wine Spectator has found it to be as high as 7%.

Cork: The life cycle story
But cork is not all bad. Cork is a sustainable harvested, renewable resource that comes from the Cork Oak Tree. At the age of 25 the tree's bark can be harvested every 9 years, for a period of around 200 years. While the cork is growing it is sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the financial viability of cork growers helps provide long term habitat protection for countless species. According to an independent LCA study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers determined that corks are the most sustainable wine closure, and another study of wine closures showed that a cork resulted in 8 grams of greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 16 for a synthetic cork, and 52 grams for a 35 percent recycled aluminum screw cap.

Wine Closures Emissions Chart
Image Source: CorkSupply

Can used corks be recycled?
So, cork appears to be best, but what do you do with those accumulated corks sitting in a bucket by your fireplace? One program started by Amorim, the world's #1 cork producer, will recycle your corks into beneficial reuses such as show soles, floor tiles, and soil amendments. Visit ReCorkAmerica.com for more information. If you are feeling crafty, you could create cork mosaic tiles, line your wall with a giant cork board, make a pot rest, or try Dr. Vino's Ten Cool Things To Do With Leftover Wine Corks.

Ask Pablo is a weekly column that aims to answer your pressing eco-quandries. Want to ask Pablo a question? Simply email Pablo(at)treehugger(dot)com. Wondering why Pablo's qualified to answer? As the Vice President of Greenhouse Gas Management at ClimateCHECK, he helps major corporations measure and manage their greenhouse gas emissions.
Additional Resources on Cork
Organic Cork Vs. Synthetic Cork
Cork Mosaic Tiles
15,000 Used Corks Used for Wine Store Decor

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