Cork Forests Could be Displaced by Plastic Corks

LISBON, Portugal, December 24, 2002 (ENS) - You might not give a second thought to what kind of stopper you pull out of a bottle of wine, but sustainable development advocates wish that you would. Conservation groups like the WWF are concerned that the wine industry is moving away from natural cork, a shift that they believe could ultimately cause an environmental and economic crisis in several parts of the Mediterranean region.

The Mediterranean produces some 99 percent of the world's cork, which is harvested in an environmentally sustainable manner. The cork bark is stripped off the mature trees, which can live for some 200 years. With careful management each tree can be harvested throughout its lifetime, and the cork oak forests provide important habitat for an array of wildlife.


Named for the songbirds in its canopy, the 212 year old Whistler Tree is the most productive cork oak on record. It stands in the Alentejo region of Portugal. (Photo courtesy Cork Quality Council)
But within the past decade the wine industry has slowly begun to embrace plastic stoppers and screw caps. The Portuguese Cork Association (APCOR) estimates some seven to eight percent of the wine market now uses plastic stoppers or screw caps instead of traditional natural cork closures.

Some winemakers believe these synthetic stoppers protect the wine from becoming "corked," a term used to describe wine that has been spoiled from contamination. Although wine can be spoiled by things other than a tainted cork, the primary concern comes from 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), which is a compound nurtured by cork that can spoil the wine's flavor.

Industry estimates on wines noticeably tainted with TCA range as high as four percent to less than one percent. The cork industry, through various trade groups, is seeking to eliminate TCA through improved testing and monitoring of cork supplies.

Although sustainable development advocates fear the rise in synthetic stoppers, few in the wine industry seem concerned. According to Cork Supply USA, the largest provider of natural cork stoppers in the United States, improved cork harvesting techniques and a rising demand for wine throughout the world has the cork industry in fine shape.

"Now more than ever, the future for natural cork is bright," said Cork USA president Jochen Michalski. "There will be enough cork to ensure buyers of a reliable and stable market, and with the large investments that some of the top wine cork producers in Portugal have made to improve quality in recent years, taint level in processed wine corks is approaching zero."


Corks (Photo credit unknown)
Portugal produces some 52 percent of the world's cork, with Spain delivering some 32 percent. The other nations that produce cork include Italy, France, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Portuguese cork oak forests have been increasing at a rate of three percent annually for the past 20 years, Michalski added.

The concern from groups like the WWF comes from the potential impact of a weakening market for natural cork on the cork oak forests. It is the economic value of these forests that has ensured their survival, argues Clara Landeiro, the Portuguese coordinator for WWF's Green Belt Against Desertification project.

The cork industry also indirectly supports local agriculture as villagers graze cattle, sheep and goats in the forests, and also collect fruits and honey that are used in local produce.

The loss of the cork oak forests would shatter this economy and could easily lead to desertification, Landeiro says, as the cork trees are replaced by other forms of agriculture that are less sustainable and often non-indigenous. Cork oak forests are also less susceptible to wildfires, which destroy some 600,000 to 800,000 hectares of Mediterranean forests each year.

Two wildlife species, the Iberian lynx and the Iberian imperial eagle, are both seriously endangered, but can survive within cork oak forests. If the forests suffer, the outlook for these native animals will also worsen.

WWF estimates the Iberian lynx population has decreased some 90 percent in the past 15 years and population estimates range from 1,000 to only 150. It is the most threatened carnivore in Europe.

Wine stoppers account for only 15 percent of the cork production by weight, but bring in some 80 percent of the harvest by value. Cork is also used for insulation materials, tiles and other industrial applications. It also has more creative uses - last summer two Americans built a 27 foot ship out of 165,321 corks. They successfully sailed the cork boat on the Douro River in Portugal.

For more information on cork oak forests, see:

Click here to see the WWF's position on cork forest conservation.