Cork is an impermeable buoyant material, the phellem layer of bark tissue that is harvested for commercial use primarily from Quercus suber (the cork oak), which is endemic to southwest Europe and northwest Africa. Cork is composed of suberin, a hydrophobic substance and, because of its impermeable, buoyant, elastic, and fire retardant properties, it is used in a variety of products, the most common of which is wine stoppers. The montadolandscape of Portugal produces approximately half of cork harvested annually worldwide, with Corticeira Amorim being the leading company in the industry. Cork was examined microscopically by Robert Hooke, which led to his discovery and naming of the cell.
There are about 2,200,000 hectares of cork forest worldwide; 34% in Portugal and 27% in Spain. Annual production is about 200,000 tons; 49.6% from Portugal, 30.5% from Spain, 5.8% from Morocco, 4.9% from Algeria, 3.5% from Tunisia, 3.1% Italy, and 2.6% from France. Once the trees are about 25 years old the cork is traditionally stripped from the trunks every nine years, with the first two harvests generally producing lower quality cork. The trees live for about 300 years.
The cork industry is generally regarded as environmentally friendly. Cork production is generally considered sustainable because the cork tree is not cut down to obtain cork; only the bark is stripped to harvest the cork. The tree continues to live and grow. The sustainability of production and the easy recycling of cork products and by-products are two of its most distinctive aspects. Cork Oak forests also prevent desertification and are a particular habitat in the Iberian Peninsula and the refuge of various endangered species.
Carbon footprint studies conducted by Corticeira Amorim, Oeneo Bouchage of France and the Cork Supply Group of Portugal concluded that cork is the most environmentally friendly wine stopper in comparison to other alternatives. The Corticeira Amorim’s study, in particular (“Analysis of the life cycle of Cork, Aluminum and Plastic Wine Closures”), was developed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, according to ISO 14040. Results concluded that, concerning the emission of greenhouse gases, each plastic stopper released 10 times more CO2, whilst an aluminium screw cap releases 26 times more CO2 than does a cork stopper.
The Cork Oak is unrelated to the “cork trees” (Phellodendron), which have corky bark but are not used for cork production.
Cork is extracted only from early May to late August, when the cork can be separated from the tree without causing permanent damage. When the tree reaches 25–30 years of age and about 24 in (60 cm) in circumference, the cork can be removed for the first time. However, this first harvest almost always produces poor quality or “virgin” cork (Portuguese cortiça virgem; Spanish corcho bornizo or corcho virgen). Bark from initial harvests can be used to make flooring, shoes, insulation and other industrial products. Subsequent extractions usually occur at intervals of 9 years, though it can take up to 13 for the cork to reach an acceptable size. If the product is of high quality it is known as “gentle” cork (Portuguese cortiça amadia, but also cortiça secundeira only if it is the second time; Spanish corcho segundero, also restricted to the “second time”), and, ideally, is used to make stoppers for wine and champagne bottles.
The workers who specialize in removing the cork are known as extractors. An extractor uses a very sharp axe to make two types of cuts on the tree: one horizontal cut around the plant, called a crown or necklace, at a height of about 2-3 times the circumference of the tree, and several vertical cuts called rulers or openings. This is the most delicate phase of the work because, even though cutting the cork requires significant force, the extractor must not damage the underlying phellogen or the tree will be harmed.
To free the cork from the tree, the extractor pushes the handle of the axe into the rulers. A good extractor needs to use a firm but precise touch in order to free a large amount of cork without damaging the product or tree.
These freed portions of the cork are called planks. The planks are usually carried off by hand since cork forests are rarely accessible to vehicles. The cork is stacked in piles in the forest or in yards at a factory, and traditionally, left to dry, after which it can be loaded onto a truck and shipped to a processor.
Cork’s bubble-form structure and natural fire retardant make it suitable for acoustic and thermal insulation in house walls, floors, ceilings and facades. The by-product of more lucrative stopper production, corkboard is gaining popularity as a non-allergenic, easy-to-handle and safe alternative to petrochemical-based insulation products.
Granules of cork can also be mixed into concrete. The composites made by mixing cork granules and cement have lower thermal conductivity, lower density and good energy absorption. Some of the property ranges of the composites are density (400–1500 kg/m³), compressive strength (1–26 MPa) and flexural strength (0.5–4.0 MPa).
Despite it’s general use as wine stoppers cork is experiencing a resurgence in it’s use.
Cork is used in musical instruments, particularly woodwind instruments, where it is used to fasten together segments of the instrument, making the seams airtight. Low quality conducting baton handles are also often made out of cork.
It is also used in shoes, especially those using welt construction to improve climate control and comfort.
Cork is used as the core of both baseballs and cricket balls. A corked bat is made by replacing the interior of a baseball bat with cork—a practice known as “corking”. It was historically a method of cheating at baseball; the efficacyof the practice is now discredited.
Corks are also hung from hats to keep insects away. (See cork hat)
Cork has been used as a core material in sandwich composite construction.
Cork can be used instead of wood or aluminium in automotive interiors.
Cork can also be used to make watch bands and faces as seen with Sprout Watches.
Cork slabs are sometimes used by orchid growers as a natural mounting material.
Cork paddles are used by glass blowers to manipulate and shape hot molten glass.