So it all started with a bottle of Prosecco……. (probably a lot of plans, challenges and ideas have started out like that, or similar), a challenge for a great cause,  a gift to former colleagues and friends and a chance to get creative for myself.

Why corks?

The first ideas for this began a few years ago at a New Years Eve dinner where I and other guests were taken by the little table placings, lovingly handmade by their grandma. Over the course of the meal and between courses, I took photos and an extremely small stop-motion animation came to life (with not the most exciting storyline).

Christmas Cork chums







Fast forward a few years and combine this with my ever increasing involvement into the world of recycling, materials and resource use (along with a few more bottles of fizz along the way), the wee cork men had never left my mind. In fact with a few at my old organisation we started the “cork challenge” to bring them to life using only what was available on your desk or in your drawers.

Cork friends

Recently it came to a point that I was determined to explore their possibilities further and let a bit of creativity out, so I finally decided to  make it. Inspired by a childhood watching morph (that I now find has made a comeback) and a crafty primary school teacher mum who always appreciated the versatility of uses for corks,  I set to work thinking about a theme and a script.

My next challenge was how would I actually make them? I had begun collecting corks, sneaking them into my pocket or bag after some one had popped open a bottle over the past months, meaning that I had a nice selection of these chunky, expressionless materials to bring to life.

My first thoughts went to the art shop round the corner, surely they would have lots of bits and bobs to create my characters/ actors, props and stage set. Perhaps though, if I really wanted to create something that was inline with the Be Resourceful Challenge I should try to only use what I have, rubbish, recycled items and materials from around the home to follow the ethos behind the film. As an aside. Did you know that there is actually a BSI standard on sustainable film production? I wonder if I qualify? So only the googly eyes, some glue and colour coordinated sheets were bought (that will all be used for other projects).

I hope you enjoy……………. and perhaps would like to see more of them?!

Notes on the main “stars” of the animation – the corks

Cork a sustainable material option?

When looking into the world of corks in more detail, and I must admit here that despite my background in sustainability, materials and Life Cycle Analysis I had only a general recognition of cork being regarded as a sustainable material. My understanding of the reasons behind this however didn’t really go very deep. When researching further it is actually a hotly contested industry topic between the natural cork producers, synthetic plastic corks, hybrid and agglomerated corks (a mix of ground up cork held together and bonded by polymers or adhesive) and aluminum screw tops, often known as Stelvin Closures. In 2008 however research came out from APCOR which was independently verified, that natural cork was deemed the most environmentally friendly option when comparing different stopper lifecycle impacts. As technology and new “cork” products emerge, as well as further studies into combined life cycle and system impacts of the wine and sparkling wine industries, these debates will no doubt be set to continue. The question will also be what the role of the purchaser is and how their preferences and understanding will influence the market and supply chain. The UK has now become one of the largest markets of screw top wine, with now 40% of the buying public happy to buy wine using these. I won’t even get onto boxes, cartons or pouches…..

Can corks be recycled?

Corks can be recycled but unfortunately there is little facilitation of this in standard UK household recycling infrastructure or in our supermarkets. If you have a home composter you can however add natural corks to this, either breaking up in advance (faster break down) or put them in whole. In America there have been a growing number of organisations providing recycling such as ReCork or Put a Cork in It. Just looking through online retailers such as eBay there is also demand for corks (particularly by artists). So if you collect enough you can also advertise and sell them by the box load. More recently Laithwaites in the UK has teamed up with the Savoy in London and others to provide a cork recycling service where the cork can be collected, returned, composted and mulched to be used on English vineyards. A nice relationship where the cork in the wine bottles return to the soil to support the growing of the vines and the next generation of grapes.

Where do corks come from?

Cork actually comes from the bark of the cork tree, which is a special type of Oak (Quercus Suber in Latin where the word cork derives from ). They are predominantly grown in South Portugal and Spain (in fact around 70% of the total natural cork production), alongside other countries around the Western Mediterranean. Other countries also grow them but the quality is sometimes questioned. There are no links to the city and county of Cork in Ireland, where the name stems from an Irish form for marshes (definitely not the cork oaks natural environment).

It’s actually quite a special tree or material as it’s the only tree in the world that you can cut off its bark with out doing it any harm. You can find a great photo essay on the production process here. This can only be done at a minimum of every 9 years and first harvesting can only begin once they’ve reached a minimum of 25 years old. The bark needs to be an inch thick. Worryingly the cork trees are not producing or achieving this as in years gone by and are getting thinner. Recent research from Lisbon suggests that this may be caused by climate change, an adaptive response to higher temperatures and reducing rainfall. They can live to be over 200 years old.

Uses and properties

Corks have many interesting natural properties and are both renewable and biodegradable; it’s extremely light, floats, elastic and can be compressed to half its size. It can be used for insulating both heat and noise. These characteristics mean that as well as being a bottle stop, as it has been used for ever since Egyptian and Greek times, there are thousands of other applications found in everyday life (as well as more specialist applications):

The cork environment

As well as the practical uses that cork gives us, the forests create a special habitat for biodiversity and wildlife, including the critically endangered Iberian Lynx. They provide much needed shade as well as protected areas that are safe from logging and help to prevent soil erosion and desertification. This has meant that organisations such as WWF and the RSPB are part of campaigns and initiatives to preserve these and recognise corks valuable environmental properties. This is alongside its social benefit of providing much needed jobs to local communities, preserving tradition and craftsmanship passed down through families. The I Love Natural Cork campaign was launched in July 2010 by the Portuguese Cork Association (APCOR) and aims to recruit both wine consumers and those in the trade to choose wine with natural cork stoppers because of cork’s environmental, economic and social/cultural benefits. There are also other UK initiatives with the Cork Federation and educational resources for schools that they provide through Planet Cork.

So next time you celebrate and share a bottle of bubbly or wine (or your parents are), have a think about the value of the material that just popped out the bottle, the special properties, the life of the tree growing (and probably still growing) behind it and the surrounding wildlife that this natural material sustains.

Discover what you can do with yours and other ideas during Waste less, Live more week 2014

Coming soon – get involved behind the scenes with A Corking Life Adventures helping to create the next installment. Chat with us @CorkingLife

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