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Friday, April 17, 2009

Cheers! Now You Can Recycle Your Wine Corks

Published by Joe Gillach

Used wine bottle corks. Never give them much thought. After the corkscrew does its job, I simply throw corks away or find some arcane use, like guarding the tips of scissors or stabilizing a wobbly table leg. So I’ll confess skepticism when I read about a new environmental organization formed to promote the recycling of wine corks, ReCORK America.

What’s next? I wondered. Single-stream recycling for toothpaste caps, shoelaces, or those unnecessary rubber bands around the daily newspaper?

To dig a little deeper, I called up ReCORK’s head of public relations, Roger Archey, who also happens to be the West Coast marketing head for Amorim, the world’s third largest manufacturer of cork stoppers, selling over three billion annually.

Archey piqued my sustainability interests when he mentioned that Amorim was the first natural cork supplier in the world to receive FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification in 2007. Because natural cork is a renewable resource—the stripped cork bark regrows in 10 to 12 years while the trees can live 150 years—it has environmental advantages over the plastic stopper and metal screwcap alternatives.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers life cycle analysis published a last week showed that carbon dioxide emissions of screwcaps are 24 times higher than natural cork stoppers, and plastic stoppers produce 10 times more CO2 than natural cork stoppers. The research, commissioned by Amorim, compared the performance of cork stoppers versus aluminum screwcaps and plastic stoppers on seven key environmental indicators. Cork won on six of seven dimensions, placing second to aluminum closures only on water consumption.

Archey was starting to turn me into a believer. And not just me—organic groceries giant Whole Foods recently partnered with ReCORK on a six-month trial in which customers at 25 Northern California Whole Foods stores may drop off their corks for recycling.

“Frankly, the public doesn’t think too much about the world of closures,” Archey confessed, referring to the industry term for wine bottle caps. It turns out that more than 13 billion corks are manufactured worldwide every year, along with stoppers for billions of plastic and aluminum bottles. This all adds up to a whole lot of unnecessary landfill that slips below the public’s radar.

Wine and champagne corks are often the one souvenir that people keep to commemorate benchmark events such as birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, and even funerals. Hang onto these—but know that ReCORK aims to get his hands on as many of the remaining corks as possible.

Despite the arcane nature of ReCORK’s recycling effort, Archey says that people are responding with enthusiasm. He recently received a call from a Florida couple who wanted to recycle their collection of 750 corks that they began amassing back in 1954 to commemorate the milestones in their marriage. (That’s nearly 14 milestones per year—perhaps one secret to a happy marriage.)

The French American International School in San Francisco recently tallied the 100,000th cork in their collection. Archey was invited to the school ceremony, where officials proudly handed over to him the latest batch of 20,000 corks gathered by students—presumably with their parents’ assistance—from local restaurants, hotels and wine bars. Très bien!

ReCORK is also focused on higher volume opportunities, capturing used and surplus corks from winery tasting rooms, bottling lines, and quality assurance laboratories. In addition, they are establishing more collection locations with key retailers and restaurants in larger metropolitan areas.

Today the ReCORK program ships most of its harvest back to Portugal, where they are ground up by Amorim. The resulting material goes to manufacturers of flooring tiles, building insulation, shoe soles, fishing rod handles, bulletin boards, place mats, gaskets, and packaging materials. Ground recycled cork even figures as an ingredient in soil compost. In time, Amorim hopes to develop California-based uses for recycled cork, to reduce the expense and carbon-load of overseas shipping. Looks like solid Cradle to Cradle thinking to me.

Amorim hopes the recycling campaign may grow a way to start a dialogue directly with consumers about cork closures. That would be a big change from the past, when only wine critics cared about wine stoppers.

Having lost 20% market share to plastic and metal alternatives in recent years, natural cork producers are looking for ways to educate consumers about the green benefits of their product. By promoting the recyclability of cork, Amorim hopes to encourage consumers to think about both the ecological and authenticity value of natural cork. Archey points out the inconsistency in creating an organic wine, only to “close it with a petroleum plug.”

The cork recycling campaign mounted by Amerim, and now embraced by Whole Foods, is anything but profitable; it will be some time before it breaks even. “It is mostly about doing good, one cork at a time,” Archey says.

I’ll drink to that!


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