Cork vs Plastic: How Real Cork is Harvested and Why It Matters

Image credit: LollyKnit

Pablo has already talked about the environmental pros and cons of wine corks, and Kara has also looked at the real versus synthetic cork debate. (On the other hand, when Kristin talked about the recyclable benefits of screw-caps, one commenter pointed out that the increasing global demand for wine means the cork forests will never be able to keep up.) Whatever your cork-based beliefs, this is not a topic that is likely to go away anytime soon. Now the Guardian has an excellent portrayal of the cork harvest, and why it matters. For folks who talk so much about restraint, it's so nice to talk about what we should be consuming for a change. (Especially if it involves drinking wine...)Journeying to one of the 350 remaining cork forests in Portugal, Lucy Siegle talks to the cork harvesters whose families have, for generations, been making use of this renewable and once plentiful resource:

"The best of the pieces harvested here, the thickest and smoothest cork, will be punched into wine corks for some of the finest vintages from the best wineries on earth. The other pieces will provide granules for the more workaday wines - the type I'm more familiar with. It's as if globalisation never happened: instead of outsourced, sub-contracted workers slaving away for a pittance, here we have local men, happily swinging axes in the depths of the forest near to where their families have often lived for generations."

It's not just the artisanal aspect of the work that gets Siegle excited—cork forests are a vital ecological resource too—providing habitat for the rare short-toed eagle and the Iberian lynx, among a whole host of other species. The forests also provide vital carbon sequestration—storing as many as 10m tonnes of CO2 every year.

So why aren't all wine makers still using cork? It turns out that an aggressive marketing push for synthetic closures like screw caps and plastic corks, alongside a somewhat lack-lustre response to concerns about cork taint from the cork industry, has led a slow revolt from even fine wine makers who increasingly prefer screw caps. In fact, the use of cork has declined in America from 90% to just over 70% in recent years.

The cork industry is finally fighting back, says Siegle, investing in research and preventative measures that they say have reduced cork taint significantly.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of corks vs plastic from a wine-lovers point of view, Siegle's article is a refreshing reminder that not all industry is bad, and that humans can indeed craft livelihoods that work in harmony with their surroundings. If only more industries could learn how to exist in symbiosis with the resources they rely on, we'd all be better off. And if the industries that have achieved this symbiosis hundreds of years ago could learn to compete in the Global marketplace, we'd be golden...

More on Cork
Organic Cork vs Synthetic
Put a Wine Cork in It
Could You Drink Screw Cap Wine to Save the Planet?

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