About a million years ago, sitting at a classy Italian restaurant in Florida with my parents, I became mesmerized by the placemat in front of me. It was made of cork. But not in the way of other sheet cork like, say, a wallboard. Instead, it was comprised of used wine corks set at all different angles, aspects and sizes, with brand writing visible on some bits. Reverse engineering this in my mind, the only way it could had been achieved was to pile thousands of corks into some kind of box, use a hydraulic-press to minimize the space between corks, pour in a bonding agent or glue of some kind, let it set, then thin-slice placemats off the resulting block.
Not only did the placemats fit the restaurant's ambience, but they were cool to boot — not to mention the first demonstration of creative re-purposing my young eyes had seen. This stuck with me, to the point that eventually, as a wine-drinking adult, I could never bring myself to throw away corks, always thinking of that placemat's entreat to somehow re-use them. This was further insinuated by my biological knowledge of the limited range and endangered status of the Iberian cork oak tree, from whose bark the material originated. As a result, I've hoarded wine corks for decades with no idea how to make good on the effort. Until I heard about ReCORK.
Originally owned by Portuguese cork company Amorim, the idea of ReCORK was to divert from landfills some of the perfectly serviceable cork discarded from the 31 million-plus bottles of wine consumed annually worldwide. It was a tall order, and unfortunately Amorim couldn't manage to get the U.S.-based ReCORK program off the ground. Enter Vancouver company SOLE, an eco-minded, active-lifestyle footwear and footbed maker. CEO Mike Baker discovered ReCORK while seeking out sustainable materials for use in SOLE products. The company eventually "adopted" the recycling program, growing it into a carbon-negative initiative that has now recycled over 73 million natural corks. This, in turn, has brought his company to a point where it can employ 100 per cent natural cork in all its products, completely closing ReCORK's recycling loop. Under SOLE's direction, ReCORK represents North America's largest natural wine-cork recycling program, with 3,000 wineries, liquor stores, retailers, and event venues across the U.S. and Canada acting as public partners (i.e. collection and drop-off locations; a directory can be found at recork.org). Cornucopia — and any number of Whistler establishments — could probably use a few collection bins, something that spokesperson Leah Baker says may happen down the road.
Before I go further, however, let's back up a bit to that "carbon-negative" statement. It's a bold claim to make in this day and age, but in this case fully justified. It means ReCORK goes a step beyond the generally desired carbon-neutral outcome of a sustainable business in actually removing carbon from the atmosphere. How is this achieved? Three ways: by grinding its recycled natural cork in a hydro-powered facility without any chemical additions; by planting over 8,000 cork oak trees; and by using carbon-neutral shipping wherever possible. The trees represent natural carbon sinks that lock away carbon in their bark (the part harvested for cork). Fortuitously, the sustainable periodic harvest of cork oak bark actually prolongs a tree's life from 70 years to more than 250 years: the more cork harvested, the more the tree produces, locking away more carbon in the process. With a closed recycling loop also functioning, choosing natural cork products helps to conserve some 6.7 million acres of ecologically sensitive, carbon-sucking cork oak forest. In a counterintuitive twist, rising demand for natural cork results in higher harvest rates that prolong the lives of trees, ensuring that all that carbon remains sequestered.
"Part of growing a business responsibly is diminishing the impact of our actions on the environment," says Baker. "We are thrilled to pioneer cork recycling because cork is such an amazing natural, raw material with benefits that extend beyond bottle stoppers."
The ReCORK program recently debuted its own first recycled natural cork product, the "198* Block," an eco-friendly yoga and fitness accessory with a naturally grippy surface (a similarly grippy surf traction pad will be released soon).
Meanwhile, for the many Whistlerites who love to line their boots (or shoes) with moulded cork footbeds, SOLE is also now producing both footwear and footbeds made with 100-per-cent recycled natural cork. Having established as a leader in pain reduction and orthopedic health with its award-winning footbeds (some 11 million sold), SOLE is rolling out new footbed collections with fresh designs, built-in metatarsal pads, and bases composed of recycled natural cork — whose use in a mouldable footbed has never been done before. Recycled cork makes these heat- and wear-mouldable footbeds uniquely durable, lightweight, and environmental sustainable.
Fascinating stuff, but more interesting is to think back to that placemat that caught my attention in Florida, and the fact that all those corks I've kept over the years might, after donating to ReCORK, end up underfoot in my ski boot.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.