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What is cork?

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

Cork-an Eco-friendly and 100% sustainable material that keeps on giving!

Cork is a 100% natural plant tissue that comes from the cork oak tree. Cork trees grow mainly in sandy, chalk-free soil along the coastline of the western Mediterranean. Portugal is the most significant cork production area due to the country’s land and weather conditions, representing 32% of the world’s cork production area. The country accounts to roughly 50% of the world’s cork output, with 64% of cork produced going into exports. Second, to Portugal is Spain, followed by France, Italy, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, according to the food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The cork tree is mainly found in the Mediterranean due to well-suited climate and deep siliceous soil that makes the perfect condition for this fascinating tree to grow healthy. The cork forests in Portugal are considered national heritage, legally protected due to high-value ecological value. It is a very important ecosystem in terms of biodiversity with rich flora and fauna and high economic and social value. The preservation of cork oak forests is vital given it is home to many species, and those forests contribute to the absorption of carbon of dioxide.

A cork oak tree lives on average 200 years. It takes 25 years before it can be harvested for the first time, but this first cork, called virgin cork, is not particularly good. After this first harvesting, another nine years must pass to complete a full cycle. The cork oak’s regeneration capacity is enormous, even without using chemical herbicides, fertilizers or irrigation. At the end of nine years, the bark is reborn, and the cork is soon ready to be harvested once again through a careful manual process.

The cork is stripped from the tree with an axe by professionals in large bulging planks without damaging the tree, which has enormous regeneration capability. The bark is stripped by highly specialized harvesters using only axes and their bare hands to separate the cork from the tree, peeling off the cork harvesters, and the tree is never damaged. After removing its bark, the tree regenerates itself every nine years, and this process never harms the tree. This environmentally friendly process has caught the eye of the world and many industries.

For all applications of cork, after extraction of the plank of the tree, the material needs to be stored for 6 months, to stabilise its texture, then boiled, to be cleaned and softened to increase its flexibility, thickness and elasticity, and then left to dry for a few weeks. Afterwards, depending on the thickness of the plank, it will be used for various purposes, including as an alternative to leather or fabric.

Even after the third harvest only 25% of the cork extracted from an oak tree is regarded as cork in the production of cork stoppers due to the quality of cork for the effect. Therefore, an opportunity has arisen from the waste from this industry as well as the increase in competition. The innovative contribution of cork application contributed to the production of handbags, wallets, clothing accessories, shoes, umbrellas and much more.

A study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund concluded that the survival of the many species depend on the preservation of the cork oak forests. In addition, the cork oak forests help to prevent the advance of desertification, improve water penetration into the soil and hydrological regulation, promote soil conservation, and being the perfect habitat for many animals and vegetables species.

Cork, the greatest product of the Cork Oak forest, is a raw vegetable material with exceptional environmental qualities: it is a renewable resource that is recyclable, non-toxic and durable as well as being a great CO2 fixer.

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