With all the wine I drink, you think I’d know how corks are made. But I didn’t until today. I started to write about recycling wine corks and ended up learning how they’re produced. It’s quite complicated and dang interesting. Read on for a crash course, and come back tomorrow to learn how to breathe new life into your old corks by recycling them.
It Starts With A Tree
Cork comes from the bark of the Cork Oak Tree, an evergreen that can grow to about 65 feet tall and live 150 to 250 years. The trees thrive in Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Morocco, France, Italy, and Tunisia. After about 25 years, trained cork harvesters strip the bark from the tree with small axes — this is all done by hand. The bark regrows, and every 9 to 12 years it can be reharvested. The tree isn’t harmed during this process, and one tree can provide about 12 harvests in its lifetime, making natural cork a fabulously renewable resource.
The cork industry produces 340,000 tons of cork a year and employs about 30,000 people. (Who knew, right?) 15% of the raw material by weight goes into the production of wine corks, and that production brings in 66% of the industry’s revenues.
The Bark Gets A Bath
Harvesters remove the tree bark in large planks that they stack on pallets. The planks cure outdoors for a few weeks to a few months and then head to a processing facility. There, they hit a vat of boiling water treated with a fungicide, where they soak for awhile and emerge cleaned and softened. Workers strip a layer of low quality bark off each plank, after which they’re stacked and stored in a dark, humidity-controlled cellar to cure for a few more weeks.
The Corks Are Cut, Cleaned, And Consumed
Planks are trimmed to workable sizes and graded by quality — wine corks come from the highest quality bark. Workers punch out high end corks by hand, while others are machine punched. After being cleaned and sterilized, they’re packed and ready to find their way into that case of wine you’ll buy for your next party.
What Happens Next Is Up To You
Worldwide, almost 13 billion wine corks are produced each year. And while corks can be recycled into other products, like flooring, many end up in landfills. If you’re wondering where you can recycle your plentiful supply (don’t worry, we won’t judge how many you have), check back tomorrow for a list of companies who want to breathe new life into your old corks.
Did you learn something new?