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The show ‘stopper’ of the material world

From bottle stoppers and place mats to Ferragamo’s infamous wedged heels, Cork has infiltrated most aspects of our lives, the ‘dark horse’ of natural materials. In fact cork also played a crucial role in shaping the subject we know today as microbiology. If you have an eidetic memory or for some reason remember random parts of your old high school Biology textbook you must be familiar with this juicy ‘little’ tit-bit: Cells were discovered in 1665 by Robert Hooke (a scientist and architect). Hooke was examining a sliver of cork under a regular microscope when he made an interesting revelation “cork was made up of multifaceted cavities”, he had discovered ‘plant-cells’, specifically cell walls leading up to the coining of the term ‘cells’ itself. So other than leading to groundbreaking scientific discoveries - what's so special about your wine stopper?

Cork wine stoppers

Cork cell wall (https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/)

History of Cork

Let's take a peek at the journey of a material that works miracles in every role it's molded into, a real show-’stopper’. For the most part, the history of cork is often traced back to its humble beginnings, as a ‘stopper’, dating back to the tombs of ancient Egypt. Cork stoppers were commonly used for storing olive oil and wine in the past (and is still in practice today) but that wasn't it's only use. It was the Greeks, who discovered the secret to harvesting cork - when cork was stripped from the tree, a new sheath that was sturdier and of better quality would shortly form. Cork slowly found its way around the ancient lifestyles - from buoys for fishing nets to shock absorbing sandals and corkwood planks in the construction of homes. Our ancestors welcomed this shape-shifting blessing with open arms which paved the way for the need of cork forests that could be cultivated and harvested. Today cork oak forests occupy an area of about 2.1 million hectares in the western Mediterranean basin, with Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Algeria jointly harbouring over 90% of the distribution area for the species.

What exactly is Cork?

Cork is a natural material that comes from the bark of an evergreen oak known by the Latin name Quercus (oak) Suber (cork). It is essentially composed of dead cells that gather on the outer surface of the cork oak tree. It has a special honeycomb-like structure, thus, consists largely of empty space; with a density one-fourth that of water. Unlike a honeycomb, however, cork consists of irregularly shaped and spaced cells having an average of 14 sides. With many of these empty cells packed close together - cork is kind of like nature's own bubble wrap, the perfect cushioning material. In addition to it’s sponginess, the large amount of air space within the structure of the cork makes it an effective insulation material for both temperature and noise. Cork also acts as a flame retardant, a non-slip surface and is used for polishing diamonds. It is basically the jack of all trades and master of all, a highly durable material that is naturally dust and moisture resistant, can be molded into virtually any shape and is harvested using environmentally sustainable methods.

Harvested cork tree (https://www.rainforest-alliance.org)

How do you harvest Cork?

Cork is grown in a select few forests, mostly in the Mediterranean region with Portugal being the most productive; they produce half of the world’s harvested cork, around 50%. A cork tree is ready for its first harvest when it is about 20 years old, using a specially designed hatchet; vertical and horizontal cuts are made through the bark. Throughout this process special care and attention is given so as to not harm any living part of the tree, this process is usually done on the trunk, but on some larger trees, the lower branches are also utilized. The first harvest usually yields a lesser quality that can only be used to make agglomerated cork products.

Cork is harvested only once every 9 years, a cork tree will be “stripped”, on average, sixteen times during its 150 to 200 lifespan. The harvested cork is either left out in the open air for six months subjecting it to weathering or is taken to cork processing factories where it is dried, boiled and formed into various materials and products. The remaining cork is then ground up and processed to be used in the production of agglomerated cork and cork & rubber compounds, there is virtually no waste involved in cork production, in fact, 90% of the energy used in cork processing is made from burning cork dust.

The outer bark being stripped off during cork harvesting (business insider)

Is Cork sustainable?

So we know that cork is versatile and durable but does that mean it’s eco-friendly? Going back to the harvesting procedure, we learnt that cork trees are carefully harvested, ensuring that no harm comes to the tree and that the tree is allowed time to grow naturally. When we talk about forests of such a vast size, it is normal to wonder about the biodiversity of the area and whether or not it is being affected. Cork forests are actually some of the most bio-diverse environments, home to a variety of plant and bird species, including millions of migratory birds as well as endangered species like; the Iberian Imperial Eagle, Iberian Lynx and the Barbary Deerplant. Cork oak trees have sophisticated root systems that are excellent water regulators and also anchor the soil. Remember when we said that cork is a flame retardant? Well this protection extends to the forest itself and the animals within it.

In addition to providing food and shelter to an array of species, these trees play a vital role in the CO2 cycle. Harvesting cork, strangely, helps in sequestering more CO2; each time the bark is harvested it regenerates itself and in doing so absorbs CO2. In its natural state, cork is 100% biodegradable but you must keep in mind that there are many instances where cork is combined with additives in order to bind it together - this could include some kind of glue or micro-plastic. The good news is that there are recycling solutions developed for such instances. Lastly, cork harvesting is a vital source of regional rural employment. It has been estimated that more than 100,000 people in the seven Mediterranean cork-producing countries depend directly and indirectly on cork economies.

Wallet made from cork (Studio Beej)

It could be argued that cork is one of the most sustainable materials available today, from its versatility and properties to the added environmental benefits, this material is a definite game changer that could become a permanent addition to the inventory of conscious plant-based alternatives/materials. At Beej we use FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified cork in a range of our products, from wallets to tote bags. In addition to being an eco-friendly alternative to leather owing to its water and scratch resistant properties, this durable material is no fuss and easy to maintain, making it the perfect material for our accessories. Curious about how we use cork? Discover our creative escapade with this multifaceted material.

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