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How the cork sector is putting circular economy into practice

31.10.2018 20:20

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Photo: Jordi Mas. Catalan Cork Institute

The Circular Economy is shown as an alternative to the traditional model of production and consumption, with the added value of being able to solve many of the current environmental challenges, channelling new business opportunities and boosting economic growth.

The cork sector has demonstrated sustainability in all its production processes and has continued its strong commitment to research and development in recent years.

The cork stopper is a natural, recyclable and renewable product. Artificial stoppers, on the other hand, have a high environmental impact: the plastic stopper emits 10 times more CO2 than the cork stopper, a figure that is multiplied by 24 in the case of the screw cap.

Cork is a renewable natural material. Its extraction does not cause any negative impact and does not require cutting down the tree, since cork oaks have the ability to regenerate the cork bark that has been removed and its extraction does not cause contamination, as it is done carefully by hand.  A cork oak forest has the capacity to set 6 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, in this way, Mediterranean cork oak forests capture more than 14 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

The environmental benefits of the cork oak forests include the preservation of the plant subsoil, water retention, protection of marshes, control of erosion and, therefore, desertification and fire prevention, as a result of its fireproof character. 

Spain is the second largest producer of cork behind Portugal, and has 506,000 hectares of cork oak trees: representing 25% of the world’s total.

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Source: FAO

The cork industry cycle is completed with the recycling of cork stoppers, an activity that involves a low energy cost. The collected caps are crushed and the aggregate obtained is used to make cork products not intended for food, such as materials for construction or the creation of objects for domestic and artistic use, following the trend of eco-design. These practices of cork recycling endorse the principles established by the Circular Economy.

In this line, the Catalan Cork Institute has collaborated with different initiatives, managing to develop new applications that use cork by-products, among them: a 3D printing filament with 25% of cork powder, working with the company 3D Spider; a filling from the cork of recycled stoppers for sports areas with third generation artificial turf, with the company Royalverd; and finally, a block of concrete that incorporates cork aggregates, with the company FORSU.

Special mention should be given to the ECORKWASTE project, which proposes two outputs to the by-products of the cork industry. The first is a pilot demonstrating the feasibility of a hybrid wetland system built based on the use of the by-product. The second, also a pilot model, shows that the use of the cork by-product is suitable as a substrate for the production of synthetic gas in a gasification system.


"The Spanish cork sector is a key ally in the process of transition to a Circular Economy" says Albert Hereu, director of the Catalan Cork Institute (ICSURO). "The activity developed by ICSURO, focused on spreading awareness about the importance of betting on a natural and national product such as the cork stopper, is essential if we want to move towards a sustainable and low impact economy model environmental," adds Hereu.

ICSURO are organising the International Congress, ‘Cork in Science and Applications’ in May 2019. Abstracts are now invited!

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