Recycled corks, safer communities

[Image] Wine corks are recycled and turned into
flame-retardant flooring for floors,
cutting down on the risk of fire.
(Image: Stock.Xchng)

Carol Wilde
  Group advertising and PR manager
  +27 21 657 4538
Joaquim Sá
  MD, Amorim South Africa
  +27 21 881 3022

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Cape Town’s upmarket Vineyard Hotel and Spa, located in Newlands in the southern suburbs, has a state-of-the-art health and fitness centre, 207 luxurious rooms, lush gardens and a vineyard planted to commemorate South Africa’s 350th wine making anniversary.

However, the Vineyard is not just a pretty face. The establishment is now giving back to communities in the area by providing fire-retardant floors made from recycled corks to facilities that care for underprivileged children.

The inspiring idea came to David Wibberley, the Vineyard’s food and beverage duty manager, after hearing about a wave of unfortunate fire related events.

He explained, “Many poorer communities are affected by accidental shack fires through paraffin lamps or candles being knocked over, setting blankets alight and often with tragic consequences.”

Cork has excellent fire-retardant qualities as well as elasticity, durability and hypoallergenic qualities, said Wibberley.

“I realised there may be a potential for this product beyond its use in wine making.”

So far the hotel has collected 25 000 corks from its wine estate partners Klein Constantia, Buitenverwatching, Boschendal, Anthonij Rupert, Villiera and Groot Constantia.

The project has also received mass support from conference delegates, visitors and hotel guests, according to Wibberley.

“This project was focused on educating the public about minimalising waste,” Wibberley said. “Instead of putting such a beautiful sustainable product into the trash, we can collect it and turn it into flooring to put into our Kids of the Cape projects connected to the Vineyard Hotel.”

Making a safe house even safer

The Eersterivier Empowerment Centre, a safe house for children who have been abused at home, will be the first recipient of the completed product. The flooring will be installed in an area of 24 square metres that will be the children’s playroom.

Amorim Corks South Africa is the company in charge of the cork recycling.

The process of turning corks into flooring is an interesting one. When enough corks have been gathered, they are shipped off to Amorim’s main facility in Portugal, where they are ground into small granules, mixed with a non-toxic resin binder, moulded into large blocks and then sliced into cork tiles.

The new cork flooring is then coated with a special varnish.

Recycling corks is not new to Amorim Corks South Africa, as the company is involved in similar cork recycling projects with other partners. In 2009 Amorim and Spier Wines launched the first such initiative.

Besides flooring, the recycled corks are also turned into shoe soles and other useful products.

Sustainable harvest

Cork is an impermeable material harvested from the cork oak (Quercus suber). This tree is endemic to southwest Europe and northwest Africa, with Portugal producing 61% of cork.

It is extracted from the trees from early May to late August – the northern hemisphere’s spring and summer – when it can be separated from the tree without causing permanent damage.

The procedure is carried out using a very sharp axe, taking great care not to damage the underlying phellogen – the tissue responsible for the regeneration of the epidermis – or the tree will die.

Cork is harvested for the first time when the tree is about 25 to 30 years old, and the cork from this first harvest is almost always of poor quality. This product is called virgin or male cork and can only be used in agglomerated cork products.

After the first harvest, cork is extracted every nine to 15 years, depending on how long it takes for the cork to reach an acceptable size.

A tree that lives for 150 to 220 years can be harvested about 12 times.

High quality cork, known as gentle cork, is the ideal cork for wine stoppers and champagne bottles.

This accounts for about 60% of all cork based production, but the versatile substance is also used for acoustic and thermal insulation in walls, ceilings, facades and floors.

Other uses include pin boards, fishing floats and buoys, handles for fishing rods, woodwind instruments, shoe soles, and cores in baseballs, baseball bats and cricket bats.