This age-old substance is replacing plastics and generating a billion-dollar market

by | Mar 5, 2024 | General

A February 2024 feature in The Washington Post highlights cork’s resurgence as industries globally shift towards eco-friendly substitutes to combat the reliance on plastic and other fossil fuel-based materials.

Cork product exports soared to unprecedented levels in 2023, showcasing the material’s versatility in being utilised for a range of products including flooring, furniture, footwear, clothing, and as insulation in residential spaces and electric vehicles. Portugal, leading the global market, reported a historic export value of 1.2 billon euros (£1.03 billion) in 2023.

Alona Kozma piles cork at a farm in Coruche, Portugal. Image Copyright © Jose Sarmento Matos for The Washington Post.

Beyond its eco-chic appeal, cork contributes significantly to biodiversity and carbon sequestration, thanks to the forests it originates from which offer habitats to wildlife and serve as natural carbon sinks. Unique to cork oaks is their preservation. They are not felled but rather live upwards of 200 years, continuously absorbing carbon dioxide.

Portugal, the apex cork producer, reveres these oaks to the extent of national tree status, safeguarding them through stringent legal protections. Spain trails behind Portugal in production, with other countries like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, and France also contributing to the industry.

Cork oaks have the remarkable ability to regenerate their bark, a process meticulously tracked by marking the harvest year on the tree’s trunk. This sustainable harvesting method allows for a bark regrowth cycle every nine years, emphasising the tree’s resilience and renewable nature.

The process from bark to product involves careful harvesting, ageing, and treatment to ensure the material’s quality and utility. Initially predominant in bottle stopper manufacturing, cork’s application has broadened significantly across industries due to its sustainable attributes.

An axe in used to cut the cork at a farrm in Coruche. Image Copyright © Jose Sarmento Matos for The Washington Post.

Experts highlight cork’s energy-efficient production process and its lower carbon footprint compared to synthetic alternatives. Its innate resistance to fire, water, and oil, coupled with its durability, underscores cork’s appeal as an innovative, green material.

Cork oak trees play a vital role in carbon offsetting, with the ability to lock away more carbon in their products than what’s emitted during their production. The industry’s approach to waste minimisation, including recycling and energy generation from cork dust, exemplifies a model of circular economy, bolstering cork’s status as a carbon-negative resource.

This revival not only underscores cork’s environmental benefits but also its potential in pioneering a sustainable future across various sectors.

Read the original article from The Washington Post here.

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