No Longer Just for Thumb Tacks
When asked to imagine cork, an image of either wine bottle stoppers or a bulletin board probably comes to mind. This is to be expected given that around 60% of cork products come in the form of wine bottle stoppers. The wine industry has recognized and maximized the utility of cork based upon its properties of being elastic and efficient in creating airtight seals. However, cork has not always been the preferred manner of sealing wine; in fact, hundreds of years ago, rags were stuffed into the necks of the wine bottle to serve the same purpose.
Uniquely, cork is one of those materials that seems elusive in its origin. Honestly, given its texture, one could easily assume it is a compilation of materials merely pressed together. However, this is not the case; cork is actually a timber product of the Cork Oak tree. A majority of today’s cork market is fed by timber be funneling out of Portugal. There are of course other sources, but Portugal remains the stronghold. There is still that wondrous question of what portion of the Cork Oak tree is actually used in the final cork product. There is a substance in the tree called suberin, which is highly resistance to water penetration. The suberin can be found lacing the edges of the tree roots, which allows the plant to control the intake of fluid through certain orifices. This cellular material is also found in the outermost layer of the bark, from where most cork is harvested. As part of the bark, the suberin serves a critical function for the tree by preventing the living cells underneath from losing vital moisture.
Besides being a uniquely efficient material in preventing water penetration, cork is also more fire resistant than one would imagine. As opposed to ordinary wood, the waxy property of suberin makes it less likely to burn or burst into flames. This benefit, when combined with its other properties, makes it an attractive flooring material. However, something more remarkable is taking place with consumer spending.
The most noteworthy advancement of cork has been its use as an up-and-coming flooring alternative. As making ecologically sound purchases has become more important to the consumers of today, cork has surfaced as a viable and sustainable option in the building industry. Now one may wonder what in particular makes cork any more sustainable than hardwood given they are both timber products. The answer to this is only understandable by evaluating the source of cork, which is the bark of the tree. This in turn, prevents the tree from being cut down, and rather, it is merely stripped. Although this may still sound barbaric to some, leaving the tree standing allows for the continued process of photosynthesis. As one knows from sixth grade science, this process allows the conversion of CO2 into oxygen, which is necessary for life on Earth.
Given the irreplaceable importance of trees, the cork timber industry is regulated heavily by the Portuguese government, which stipulates laws regarding the trimming, thinning and cutting of Cork Oak. The process by which cork is harvested is lengthy, and must be completed with care. For example, a Cork Oak cannot be stripped until it has reached a maturity of 25 years. After which point, it is only stripped every nine years, which allows the tree, and subsequently the forest, to remain healthy and full of life. Following the removal of the bark from the tree, it is allowed to dry, which creates uniformity in the material’s level of moisture. This in turn affects whether or not the bark, and thus the cork, will be protected from microbial contamination.
Although Portugal is an integral part of the industry, it does not exist in a vacuum. As the world undergoes globalization, what affects one community tends to affect another even when separated by many layers of commerce. The cork industry has been quite stable given its appeasing quality of being labeled sustainable. However, it is subject to many of the same woes that other agricultural industries experience. For example, insect infestation can do significant damage to a forest. Luckily though, cork harvesters have developed sustainable methods for handing even these types of problems. On the other hand, there is one natural occurrence, in particular, that is harder to manage and protect against. As seen in the United States in the last few months, fires can rage out of control for days and weeks, if not months. Hopefully for the industry, Cork Oaks will be spared such an event.
Humanity should take a moment from its travels at warp speed, and celebrate this naturally occurring and time withstanding material, for cork flooring may be the way of the future. Be a trendsetter and valiantly lead your community forward by choosing this sustainably harvested material.
- "Hot Weather and Little Rain Marks 2005 Cork Harvest." Cork Supply USA 6 Sep. 2005.