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Cork Recycling and Disposal
Cork is a material that’s been used for thousands of years in many ways – most commonly as a stopper in bottles. It’s a natural and organic material made from the bark of the cork oak tree. The good news is that cork recycling is commonplace across the UK.
Both households and businesses can produce lots of cork waste that must be recycled and disposed of correctly to help protect the environment. Discover everything you need to know about recycling cork in the UK and disposing of it in a safe and responsible manner.
Who invented cork?
Humans have used cork for more than 5,000 years and it’s been known since antiquity. Ancient civilisations such as the Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks used cork as a flotation device, a bottle lid and even for medicinal purposes including hair loss treatments.
Although we have no idea who first invented cork as a material, it’s believed that the famous Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon devised the first cork stopper to seal his bottles of champagne.
What is cork made from?
Cork is a naturally occurring raw material derived from the bark of the cork oak tree. Harvested cork is composed of the following chemicals:
- 45% suberin – this gives cork its elastic properties.
- 27% lignin – an insulating compound.
- 12% polysaccharides – these sugars in the cell wall give cork its characteristic texture.
- 6% tannins – compounds that give cork its colouration.
- 5% steroids – these compounds are hydrophobic, which makes cork impermeable.
How is cork made?
Cork isn’t made but harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree. Cork is extracted from the tree without causing lasting damage. Workers involved with harvesting cork are known as extractors, and they use a unique axe to cut into the tree. The general process to create cork is:
- Portions of cork are removed from the tree, which are known as planks. The planks are normally carried out by hand due to the thick foliage found in the cork oak trees’ natural habitat.
- These planks are left to dry for some time before being loaded into a truck and shipped to a processor.
- Planks are made into a product such as flooring, shoes, insulation, and stoppers for drinks bottles like wine.
- The final product of cork is made up of suberin cells that are structured in a hexagonal honeycomb shape. These complex fatty acids are filled with an air-like gas that accounts for 90% of its total volume. Cork has a low thermal conductivity, with a density of about 200 kg/m3.
Can cork be recycled?
Yes, you can recycle cork as it’s made from organic material. Recycling schemes such as Recorked UK accept used corks from individuals and all sorts of businesses to recycle and reuse. Some recycling centres also accept corks for recycling in the UK, though check with your local authority first.
How do you dispose of cork?
Cork is a naturally occurring, organic material – which means it’s not usually included with other recyclables like plastic. You can dispose of cork in a few different ways:
- Upcycling – Upcycling has grown in popularity over the years and is an excellent way to dispose of cork. Many upcyclers use cork as a material to create new items, so they’ll happily take it off your hands.
- Use a cork drop box – A handful of companies offer natural cork recycling drop boxes in supermarkets.
- Sell your cork – Many artisans use cork to make all sorts of products, and they’re happy to pay for used cork.
- Composting – Cork is organic, which makes it an excellent compostable material. Chop up and throw your used cork in the compost pile and it will naturally break down over time.
- Use it as plant feed – If you’re an avid gardener, you can grind up cork and use it as a fertiliser. It’s particularly beneficial for orchids and improves drainage in pots, too.
Can corks go in food waste?
No natural corks should not be thrown away with food waste. While old corks do degrade naturally over time, they don’t always break down properly when they go through anaerobic digestors. You also shouldn’t throw corks away with garden waste – instead, consider the recycling and disposal methods mentioned above.
Are there alternatives to cork?
Cork is a useful material that is environmentally friendly and sustainable. As a result of this, it’s usually a primary choice for products like bottle stoppers. There are alternatives available such as artificial cork bottle stoppers, which are less expensive but also less sustainable for the environment.
What are some facts about corks?
A few key facts about corks are that:
- Portugal is the world’s biggest producer of cork, with over 2 million hectares of cork forest covering the country. Around one-third of the world’s cork comes from Portugal.
- A cork tree harvested of its bark absorbs 10 tons more CO2 during its life than one that isn’t harvested – further helping protect the planet.
- Cork is applied to spacecraft noses to improve thermal insulation and reduce the risk of damaging the craft on re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere.
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