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Jennifer Grayson

Jennifer Grayson

Posted: September 23, 2009 12:05 PM

Eco Etiquette: Can I Recycle Wine Corks?

What's Your Reaction?

I love to entertain. I dutifully recycle all our empty wine and champagne bottles but feel a little guilty about tossing out the corks. After all the arts and crafts projects are done, any idea what I can do with the corks?

-Samantha

Ah, the cork -- a source of much heated debate between vintners concerned with spoilage and environmentalists calculating the carbon footprint of packaging. I'll admit, I haven't been a fan of the latest innovations in wine bottling, even the ones that supposedly are a boon for the environment: Boxed wine, though lighter to ship and touted by some as a way to ensure freshness, still seems tacky to me (although individually sized boxes complete with straws did prove a godsend once on a long subway ride from Manhattan to JFK International), and Tetra Pak recycling isn't yet widely available -- it's certainly not as prevalent as glass recycling. And don't even get me started on aluminum screw caps (recyclable in Los Angeles, but still met with gasps from my oenophile friends) or landfill-bound plastic and rubber stoppers, which require the strength of two men to remove from a bottle. I guess I'm just an old-fashioned girl.

By the way, you might be surprised to know that the process of making natural cork stoppers is not harmful to the environment; just as shearing sheep's wool is a sustainable, renewable process that does not harm the animals in any way, so, too, is the method for cork harvesting. Rather than cutting the trees down, the bark is stripped by hand using a special ax, and the layer slowly regenerates over time. In fact, many environmentalists and wildlife advocates, including the World Wildlife Fund, argue that the cork industry is essential to the survival of Mediterranean cork forests; without it, these important natural habitats -- home to endangered species like the Iberian lynx -- would likely fall prey to fire and desertification.

Natural cork, good. Natural cork recycling, not so easy to find. Too bad this kind of recycling is not yet widely available, since cork can be put to a lot of wonderful re-uses, such as the production of flooring tiles, building insulation, and my favorite: the giant bulletin board where I post my never-ending inspiration and resources for these articles. But a few organizations and businesses are indeed paving the way toward effective cork recycling:

ReCork America (which my friend recently discovered at the Admirals Club in LaGuardia Airport, lucky girl!), an organization that is working with wine tasting rooms and restaurants/retailers in major cities across the US, to collect natural corks. The program is sponsored by Amorim, the world's largest producer of natural cork wine stoppers. It's not yet available nationwide, but you can click here for a list of participating collection sites.

Yemm & Hart recycles natural cork stoppers into tiles that can be used for flooring. You can mail your corks to the company's Missouri plant via UPS. (Tip: Wait until you've accumulated a sizable amount before you send them off, to offset the carbon cost of shipping.)

TerraCycle, a mighty neat company that makes green products out of non-recyclable waste, and actually pays people, nonprofits, and schools to collect items such as CapriSun drink pouches, Starburst candy wrappers, and wine corks. There's currently a waiting list for the company's cork "brigade," which is too bad, since TerraCycle is the only company I know of that also accepts the plastic and rubber versions. (But why not join the Malt-O-Meal cereal bag brigade while you're waiting?)

Still, I'm glad you brought up the issue of cork recycling, because it underscores two important points to remember: First, even the tiniest of efforts, when undertaken en masse, can have tremendous impact. A cork may seem like nothing to just casually toss in the trash, but with an estimated 13 billion natural wine corks sold in the world each year, it seems an incredible waste not to find purposeful reclamation for this abundance of natural material. Second, we should never underestimate the importance of corporate responsibility in finding homes other than landfills for products at the end of their life cycle. It's good news that cork manufacturers like Amorim and Nomacorc, the sponsor of the TerraCycle program, are realizing that consumers alone can't be left to come up with recycling solutions for the products that companies create. I'll drink to that!

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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