Uncorking its Potential: cork as a modern-day sustainable material 

The other day, I was sitting opposite my dear friend whilst having a coffee and she was talking about her partner’s new surfboard. I do not know much about surfboards other than they float and that they are used for water-based activities, such as surfing, but I was nodding along and the conversation was holding my interest. She then showed me a photo of the new surfboard and low and behold it looked a bit funny and unlike any other surfboard I had previously seen. You may be asking, why is that, Lucy? I’ll tell you why… it was made of cork.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to cork. Sometimes the wine I get has a cork in it and isn’t a screw top, my mum has some cork coasters I think, and I have a cork covered notebook. Part of my interest in seeing my friend’s partner’s new surfboard was that I was seeing cork in a new setting, a new light and something that wasn’t tied to drinking, or my notepad.  

The fantastic use of cork in the new surfboard got me thinking, what other surprising things can cork be used for? Where is it the cork comes from? Is cork good (a.k.a is it sustainable and should we be replacing more things with their cork counterparts)? After some careful reading and poking around cork themed discussion boards, I’ve unearthed some CORKERS of trivia on the subject and have found that it does a lot more than hold wine in bottles and help people shred waves. 

For example, one recent article in Architects Digest describes cork as being “the Next Sustainable Material Popping Off in Home Décor”! a title which is not thrown about lightly imagine. The article commends cork for its new-found use in house insulation as it enables houses to be kept warm in the winter and cold in the summer. Another article cited corks use in vegan leather alternatives, crediting its malleability and mouldability to its success in the fashion industry, which many a Birkenstock wearer will already be aware of. Cork can be used in multiple settings, from homes to shoes, shoes to surf, surf back to fashion and vegan leather. But what is it that makes it so darn sustainable and how is it that it bagged title of “the Next Sustainable Material”? 

The main benefit of Cork is that’s it’s made from the bark of cork oak trees and its harvesting consists of stripping the bark from the oaks without cutting them down. Some people may panic, say “surely taking off the bark of a tree, its prime physical defense against horrors such as fungal infection, insect attack AND the attention of hungry birds and mammals will harm the tree, heck, it could even contribute to its early death!”. Well that’s where those people would be wrong, because the magic of Quercus suber is that its bark is entirely renewable and will just grow back!  

The cork oak is allowed to undergo an initial 25 years of growth before it gets its first de-barking, after which the same tree can be harvested every 9 years after until it dies from natural, non de-barking, related causes. A tree can last up to 300 years so each cork oak has the potential to produce 1.5 tonnes of cork,. It gets better as well, cork trees require minimal resources to grow and don’t rely on fertilizer, pesticides or pruning to flourish, making their upkeep almost non-existent compared to none cork trees. Once a cork tree has been stripped of its bark, the tree absorbs 3-5x more CO2 than usual to aid the bark regeneration process, which means it earns the badge of being a carbon positive resource. 

So, all cards on the table, cork is looking dreamy as a renewable material right now, and I’d agree it’s popping off. Some more rummaging on the World Wide Web continued to add to my growing pile of praise for cork: it’s bio-degradable, cork cutters wages are the highest in agriculture and forests in Portugal where it naturally grows, and cork oak woodlands home a high diversity of plants and animals, sustaining a rich biodiversity wherever it plants its corky roots. To be quite honest it was difficult to find anything bad to say about cork other than it’s a bit expensive, due to the high expertise which is required to harvest. Its pros seem to outweigh its cons as cork itself is not only a valuable CO2 sequester, with each harvested tree being able to remove up to 16m tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere during its lifetime, it can also serve an assortment of purposes outside of that, including but not limited to: coasters, wine, surfboards, shoe soles and vegan leather jackets! Since this conversation with my friend Hannah, my eyes have been opened to the wonders of cork and I’m frankly never going back. Cork is now, Cork is the future, Cork is sustainable. Oh, and cork is Popping Off. 

Photo: Image of the cork surfboard responsible for my journey of cork enlightenment. Made in Glasgow by releaseboards insta:@releaseboards Credit: Hannah Sharp 

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