A Win for Nature - Portugal's Sustainable Cork Industry is Growing Again!

This post is a synopsis of the article ‘Portugal pops a cork to the regeneration of a formerly ailing industry – and to its sustainable future’ by Marina Watson Peláez from Equal Times media. Read the full article here.

As reported by Equal Times media, every summer in the Alentejo region of Southern Portugal, skilled workers head out to harvest their native cork oak trees. This centuries-old tradition requires careful work with an axe, meticulously detaching the outer bark layer before it is dehydrated and processed.

Until a couple of years ago Portugal’s cork industry was in decline. 70% of the country’s cork exports were used for wine stoppers, but the global wine industry was turning away from cork. They feared ‘cork taint’, a musty smell and flavour that is sometimes created from compounds found on cork, which could taint the flavour of the wine. Wine producers were increasingly turning to cheaper synthetic materials, glass and metal to make their bottle stoppers and screw tops.

This was a real shame, as the cork industry is incredibly sustainable.

Cork oak trees live for over 200 years, and are the only species of tree in the world that can have their bark harvested repeatedly without any damage. Cork forests absorb an estimated four million tonnes of CO2 per year, encourage biodiversity, conserve soil quality, control the water cycle, and are a safeguard against forest fires.

Cork tree half way through the harvest

Portugal’s cork industry produces over one hundred thousand tonnes of cork every year, and provides green jobs and a vital income source for tens of thousands of people. It’s an incredible example of sustainable agriculture, and a renewable, circular, low carbon industry. This is why it’s incredible news that the industry is back on the up.

Over the past few years, the benefits of cork have been recognised around the world, and demand has increased both in the wine industry and beyond.

“It [cork] is now used for everything from a vegan alternative to leather to a natural option for flooring. Cork has also been used by Mercedes-Benz to make an eco-friendly car prototype, with everything from the dashboard to the steering wheel lined with the material. Cork is also used in construction, in expansion joints, cold stores, heating and air conditioning pipes, and machinery bases” - Equal Times

Portugal’s main cork association APCOR has reported a 4.5% increase over the past couple of years, with the industry reaching a value of over one billion euros as of 2019.

The future of these beautiful forests and all of the people and animals who depend on them is looking optimistic!