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The Top 10 Things to Know about Cork (to Be as Fun on a Walk as I Am)

Posted May 03 2013 2:51pm
So I'm walking at the river with my friend, trying out my Kigos to determine whether they are Portugal-ready (what does one wear to traipse around a cork oak forest?), when we get to talking cork, of course (my friends truly deserve medals). The necessity to boil down everything I'm learning (including from this literally page-turning book titled To Cork or Not to Cork) has become clear, as no one, and I mean no one I know has the slightest idea what's been going on with this whole cork saga.  In short:

The Top 10 Things You Need to Know about Cork

1. No, harvesting cork does not hurt the cork oak tree. It's like shearing sheep. Outer bark. Every nine years. For 200 years.

2. No, there is no cork shortage. That's not why plastic and screw top wine closures are taking over the market.There's supposedly enough cork for every bottle in the world for the next 100 years. The main reason given for the need for alternative closures is something called "cork taint," which can ruin a bottle of wine, but I think more than anything, the cork makers lost trust when a whole lot of things happened in the 1980s (hence the page-turning of the book) and they were slow to respond. Good ole' innovation came sweeping in to fill the void (plus, the alternatives put more profit in the winemakers' pockets, I think, but am not sure yet). But, keep in mind, it's not like the alternatives don't have their own problems. They do.

3. Yes, the cork oak forests of the southwest Mediterranean area (mostly Portugal) are the second most bio-diverse areas in the world (after the Amazon rainforest) and they sequester a whole lot of carbon (I'm not 100% sure what that even means, but it's supposed to be important).

4. Yes, the cork oak forests are in serious peril (as in, things may hit the tipping point by 2015), not because the trees are being cut down but because the value of cork is dropping so far (such as a 50% drop in the last ten years) that it won't be economically viable to even harvest the cork if this continues much longer, thereby making it more likely the farmers will sell their land to developers.

5. Yes, there are an increasing number of products besides wine stoppers being made from cork (flooring, fabric, shoes, and, oh, things like aerospace heat shields--you do know that cork is inflammable, don't you?) but these are typically made from each tree's first two harvests of cork, which are lower quality than the third and subsequent harvests. There does not yet seem to be a viable product for the higher quality cork that can effectively replace the wine stopper in economic potential.

6. Yes, much research and development is underway to continually improve the performance of cork as the material of choice for wine stoppers, even when faced with competitive options.

7. No, recycled cork stoppers (such as those tossed in this box at Whole Foods locations nationwide) do not get turned into new wine stoppers. They are ground up and used for other products (see #8 below).

8. Yes, product innovation is being encouraged to help make cork a desirable material in a wider range of everyday consumer uses. Here is a fun video demonstrating the winning entry in a business competition. The winners are students at Keystone College in Pennsylvania, and they won $50,000 for their start-up. The cork used is from the Cork ReHarvest cork collection project pictured (photo taken today at the Sandy Springs, GA Whole Foods location--shhhhh, I don't think they like you taking pictures in there). My friend Rebecca Barria is getting her PhD in education with a focus on the effect of play on literacy--she will love seeing how the children in this video play with the cork stools in a wide variety of ways. (I wonder if they'll be reading soon!) (Speaking of which, I haven't started learning Portugese yet, as this video reminds me.)

Besta Kids Stool from Paula Corrales on Vimeo .


9. Yes, I plan on bringing these skirts (and, yes, I just went outside and hung them from this tree so I could take this picture, however weird that sounds). They fold up into practically nothing (I travel with just a small backpack), you can dress them up and down (the itinerary is very varied), and I find they help me cross cultures when I am urban farming (you've all seen me in them), so I hope they work that same magic in Portugal. Okay, fine, that had nothing to do with cork, but there are important packing decisions to be made.

10.  You need ten things here to make a list, don't you? Hmmm, let me think.What did I leave out? Oh, the Iberian lynx! And that leads me to my Big Idea (my friend practically turned and ran when I got to this part today). It all starts with Trappist cheese (stay with me). Apparently there's some big wheel of cheese in some cheese cellar in Europe that has a web cam on it and it's like the most viewed thing in the world. Why, you ask? Well, because a Trappist monk apparently turns the cheese once a day. But here's the catch--it's never at the same time. So folks just keep tapping in to see if the cheese is being turned. Okay, back to the Iberian lynx (which is some sort of big cat, for those who don't know--we never stop learning here on our FoodShed Planet, do we?). Apparently, the cork oak forests are a natural habitat for this endangered species. So, yes, you guessed it. My big idea is Cork Cam (well, in reality, my friend gave it that name as she got sucked into the idea). The random attractor? Tapping in to see if the lynx is passing by. Don't laugh. This could be big.

Stay tuned. There are many discoveries ahead for us on our shared journey to Portugal. I haven't even talked to the synthetic and screw cap people yet! 

(And wait 'til you hear who are the other journalists traveling with me.)

For those of you just joining us, be sure to see the previous cork posts here: 

"Bark to Bottle" (and How Cork Oak Forests are Getting Screwed)
A Turning Point in History for Cork Oak Forests--and I Will Bear Witness  
"Dognitive" Dissonance
A "Gourd"geous Water Bottle, and More from My "Cork Series"
Some Surprising Discoveries about Women, Power, and Cork
 
Really, who knew?!
eclectic food-for-thought for a changing world
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