Taming of the Screw: Will the Planet Mourn Sustainable Cork?


Put a cork in it! That’s the old school way of bottling wine, one that benefited our environment in a variety of ways. But synthetic corks and screw tops were introduced so that getting to that yummy grape was more convenient, and to prevent the wine from spoiling. Some three percent to 15 percent of all bottles sealed with corks go bad due to a naturally occurring chemical compound called trichloroanisole (TCA).

To save the billion dollar industry, wineries around the globe transitioned to synthetic corks made form plastic and now, user-friendly screw caps.

In 2004, Corbett Canyon, the largest producer of U.S. wines adopted easy-to-use screw seals, mostly to respond to the perception of cork causing tainting. But the synthetics are not limited to cheapo wines. RH Phillips and Whitehall Lane converted, as well as Washington’s Hogue Cellars. And it’s not just the inexpensive ones. Napa’s PlumpJack Winery sealed half of its 2000 Reserve Cab ($100 a bottle) with plastic caps.


The threat to the cork industry pits the European farmer against U.S. corporations like Dow (the maker of Agent Orange, pesticides and PVC plastics) which heads a plastic cork research and development group called Neocork, that is backed by California wine makers and reported investors like Bill Gates.

Why the environment is getting screwed:

The Trees


No trees are cut down to make the cork for stoppers. Instead, bark is stripped every nine years or so with hand-held axes and grows back to fortify a thriving ecosystem. Cork oak trees can yield material for up to 200 years if stripped of bark to maintain their health. The cork oak forests offer considerable shelter to plant and animal species in the Mediterranean, including endangered Barbara deer, the Imperial Iberian eagle and the Iberian lynx. Working the land provides jobs for some 100,000 people in Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, France and Portugal. The regeneration of the trees is also effective in absorbing millions of tons of carbon dioxide, thereby offsetting greenhouse gases that are blamed for global warming. The cork industry group APCOR estimates the amount of CO2 emissions soaked up in each summer harvest in Portugal equals the emissions of 185,000 cars.

Emissions and Reuse


Cork has emerged as a popular green material for chic flooring and wall covering, fashion bags, pens and mini boards. It is easy to recycle and re-purpose and inexpensive to produce.  Meantime, synthetic alternatives are difficult to recycle and require much more energy to manufacture. Cork has been widely embraced by green designers and artisans for products that are easy to manufacture and install in our homes. Aluminum screw tops are often tossed out. At one UK site, blog visitors recommended these uses: Cookie cutters for dough, donations to schools for arts and crafts projects, or drill a hole in them for crazy jewelry. In other worlds, the upcycling is slow on the uptake.

Wine preservation versus earth preservation


As Grist so aptly points out, the environmental impact of the plastic screw top has less to do with leaching plastics and dangers to the grape than with “overall manufacturing footprints.” From the health of the trees, to the sustainability of the ecosystem and livelihood of tree farmers, plastic bottle tops are barking up the wrong tree, just as all the plastic conveniences that came before the newest darlings of the beverage industry.

Images: TheBusyBrain, Panda, Atlantawineguy, The Nibble, Corkfloor,

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.