Benefits of Buying Cork-based Products

by Robin Yeager on 05/19/2009

in Green Building, Green Products

Cork is as eco-friendly as wool. Why? Because cork trees, like sheep, can be stripped of their outer covering without causing harm to the tree. And their bark will grow back, albeit not as quickly as a sheep grows wool.

Depending on their location, cork trees are harvested every 9-12 years and live for roughly 200 years. Thus, cork is a renewable and sustainable resource, which could be in jeopardy due to wineries’ increasing use of screw caps and plastic stoppers on wine bottles.

In green interior design circles, carpets are frowned upon due to their synthetic fibers, which are created by chemical processes that require fossil fuels. Since wool is a natural fiber, it’s considered an acceptable alternative to nylon and polypropylene carpets. A major drawback to a wool carpet is its price, which probably explains why it represents a tiny fraction of the U.S. carpet market. In addition, wool comes primarily from New Zealand, Argentina and the U.K., which adds a large carbon footprint to the product.

Cork flooring is a sustainable alternative to traditional wood floors and carpets. Its multiple benefits include: it’s comfortable to stand on, durable, low maintenance, moisture-resistant, anti-allergenic and insect-resistant. Cork flooring also provides thermal insulation and sound and vibration reduction.

More than a third of the world’s cork trees and more than half of its cork comes from Portugal. Spain provides about 25% of the world’s cork. Only five other Mediterranean countries – Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, Morocco and France – supply commercial cork, which absorb tons of carbon dioxide and sustain a wide range of thriving plant and animal life.

Although Portugal prohibits cutting down cork oak trees except to fell old, unproductive trees as part of forest management, at least one report indicates that cork forests have declined significantly in the past 10 years. To counter the potential loss of Portugal’s cork forests, the World Wildlife Fund has launched a cork-protection program that includes lobbying the cork and wine industries to seek Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for cork.

As consumers, we must begin to consider the environmental costs associated with shipping a product from its source to its destination. In this case, it seems to me that the environmental benefits of supporting cork forests and their eco-systems while installing a sustainable product in our homes and businesses, or drinking our favorite wines out of cork-stopped bottles outweigh the environmental downside associated with their transport. It’s a balancing act.

For more information and resources on cork, check out getwithgreen’s cork page
and the Portugese cork trade association’s info about cork.

5.19.09

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