When we think of a cork, we typically think of the stopper found in wine bottles that helps with preservation and freshness.
But cork has a lot more uses than that.
Yes, it’s true that one of the original uses for cork was a bottle stopper, but it is also used to make flotation devices and floats for fishing nets among other uses.
Whether you’re a wine connoisseur, a fisherman, or just use a lot of cork in general, you may be wondering how you can dispose of cork materials in an eco-friendly way when you no longer have use for them.
Most cork can’t be recycled through your local curbside recycling program.
But the good news is that there are a few companies that will recycle wine corks and turn them into new products.
For more information about these companies, as well as everything else you need to know about recycling cork, please continue reading.
1. What Is Cork Made Of?
There are two types of cork: natural and synthetic. Each of these types of cork is made from different materials.
Before we can get into the overall recyclability of cork, we need to look at each type of cork individually to have a better understanding of how and why they are made.
Natural cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree. The trees are native to Spain and Portugal.
It is the most commonly used for all products made from cork, but especially for wine and bottle stoppers.
One tree can provide enough cork for thousands of bottles and the trees themselves can live for as many as 200 years.
The bark will regrow, but it can take a while. That means that cork can only be harvested from one particular tree about once every ten years.
Since natural cork comes from trees, it is the most natural and eco-friendly type of cork.
The trees are also abundant, but they are protected to help keep them sustainable.
However, there are some negatives to natural cork.
One of those is called “cork taint,” which is harmless to humans but can affect the aroma of a wine if the cork is used as a bottle stopper.
Cork taint is a result of a chemical compound known as TCA. TCA affects more wood-based products than just cork.
Because cork taint is a possibility and can affect the aroma of wine and some natural corks can give the wine a woody taste, some wine enthusiasts prefer a different material to be used to seal their bottles.
This is where synthetic cork comes in.
Most synthetic cork is made from plastic, more specifically polyethylene.
Polyethylene can be melted and given a texture that resembles natural cork.
It is more durable, affordable, and preferable because there is no “cork taint” that could affect the aroma of the wine.
However, since synthetic corks are made from petroleum-based plastic, they are not as eco-friendly, sustainable, or biodegradable.
2. Is Cork Recyclable?
Now that we’ve established the two different types of cork, we can talk about whether or not they are recyclable.
The good news is that both types of cork are recyclable. However, you usually can’t do so through your local recycling program.
Cork used for wine bottles is very small, and cork used for other products like corkboards tends to be very thin.
Recycling can be expensive, and small quantities of cork usually aren’t worth the cost it would take to recycle them.
But there are several companies out there that you can mail used wine corks to that will recycle them and turn them into new products.
The reason that these cork-recycling programs work is that they accept only cork.
Therefore, they receive cork in much larger quantities and can justify the cost of recycling it.
With ReCork, you can pack all of your used cork into a box if you have a large amount and mail it to them.
If you just have a small amount, you can take it to one of their cork drop-off locations.
Cork Forest Conservation Alliance only accepts natural cork, but they have drop boxes in certain locations that allow you to just drop your corks in and each specific location will take care of the rest.
If you don’t have a ReCork or CFCA drop-off location near you, you can mail them to Cork Club. Cork Club will accept at least 5 pounds of both natural and synthetic cork.
You have to pay for shipping, but they help ensure that cork gets recycled properly and donate 2 cents to non-profit organizations for every natural cork that gets donated.
Lastly, there’s Terracycle, which will also accept both natural and synthetic cork.
With Terracycle, you order a box to put your corks in. When you fill the box, you send it back to them.
They’ll separate the corks based on whether they are natural or synthetic. Natural cork is shredded and used as a filler in other materials.
Synthetic cork is melted down and turned into pellets, which are used in injection and compression molding applications.
3. Are All Cork Products Recyclable?
It’s important to note that the above programs mostly accept wine corks because these can be separated from other materials.
For example, you can separate the cork from the glass bottle and recycle the bottle separately.
Other products where cork is used often have the cork attached to other materials. Examples include:
- cork boards
- fishing products
It can be hard to separate the cork from other materials such as plastic or wood.
Even if the other materials are recyclable as well, separating different recyclable materials is essential in order for them to be recycled properly
If the recycling facility has to do it, it makes recycling less efficient. The products will usually end up just getting thrown away.
That’s why many cork recycling programs only accept wine corks and not other products that contain cork.
4. Does Cork End up in Landfills?
Millions of individual corks end up in landfills every year.
This is because a lot of people just throw it away because they aren’t sure how else to dispose of it.
They don’t realize that cork by itself can be recycled.
Even if they do, they aren’t sure how to go about recycling it since most residential recycling programs don’t accept cork.
5. How Do You Dispose of Cork Correctly?
If you have cork that is attached to another material, such as a corkboard, then the best thing you can do is throw it away.
If you try to separate it in order to recycle it, there’s no guarantee that you can get just the cork material.
Natural cork will biodegrade over time, even if it is in a landfill.
But if you have a wine cork or cork that is by itself, it is better to try to recycle it through one of the companies mentioned earlier.
You can also try to find a creative way to reuse cork.
6. Is Cork Compostable?
Natural cork is 100% compostable, but synthetic cork isn’t.
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between natural and synthetic cork.
But if you’re composting cork, you want to be sure that it’s natural. Otherwise, the cork may not break down or you can potentially pollute your compost.
That’s why ReCork has created a database known as CORKWatch.
Note that it works for wine corks only, but it’s a great way to tell whether or not the cork from your wine is compostable.
All you have to do is enter the name and brand of wine, and the database will tell you whether that brand uses natural or synthetic cork.
If you do plan to compost natural cork, make sure that there is no plastic attached to it before you compost it.
If the cork is synthetic, you can recycle it through one of the cork recycling programs.
5 Creative Ways to Reuse Cork
If you have a bunch of cork lying around that you aren’t sure what to do with – and there are no cork drop-off locations nearby – you can always find a way to reuse it.
Here are some of the most creative ways.
Old wine corks are the perfect size to use for making stamps.
Just carve out a small design on one end of the cork – such as a flower, heart, or your monogram – dip it in ink, then use it to personalize letters, stationery, or gift wrap.
Cut wine corks in half across the middle, then use hot glue to attach them to a round piece of cut-out cardboard.
You can make coasters that are absorbent and have a vintage look to them.
3. Plant Labels
Drill a small hole into the bottom of a cork and attach a thin stick or wood dowel into the hole.
You can use hot glue to better secure the stake into the hole if you prefer.
Then, use a marker to write the name of a particular plant on the side of the cork, and stick it in that plant’s container.
4. Jewelry Hanger
Use hot glue to attach the bottom of a cork to a flat piece of salvaged wood.
Line up several corks in a row on the wood.
Then, attach the wood to a wall and hang your necklaces and bracelets on the corks.
5. Save Them As Keepsakes
If you have a cork from wine that you drank on a special occasion, write the date and the occasion on the cork.
Or, you have a wine that you really enjoyed, write a number on the cork.
Then, write the name, type, and any other important information about the wine in a journal next to that number.
Store the corks in a bowl or jar. There are also shadowboxes that you can purchase to store the corks you want to keep in.
A lot of cork – especially those that are used as bottle stoppers – aren’t recycled, although they could be.
Many people aren’t aware that you can recycle cork since most curbside and residential recycling programs don’t accept it.
However, there are multiple companies that you can send your used cork to that will recycle it for you.
Or, remember that natural cork is compostable.
You can also find more creative ways to reuse your wine corks. The list doesn’t end with just our suggestions.