Wine bottles have a clear path to the afterlife. After the wine’s been poured and the toasts have been raised, the empty bottles go to recycling centers where they’re sorted by color, crushed into small pieces known as cullet, and sent on to become new bottles and glasses or turned into building materials and more.
The corks and caps that top off those bottles, on the other hand, have a more complicated route to salvage salvation.
Here’s a rundown on the pluses and minuses of closure types and what can be done to keep them out of landfills.
The Big Small Problem
Size matters. All types of closure—natural cork, synthetic cork, and aluminum screw cap—are just too small for most major recycling facilities. The closures fall through sorting grates and end up in a pile on the floor that generally goes to the landfill.
To fix the problem, Nomacorc and some recycling facilities are encouraging consumers to keep corks out of recycling bins and instead drop them off in collection boxes set up at retailers and other locations.
Nomacorc synthetic corks are low-density polyethylene, classified as food-grade No. 4 recyclable plastic by the EPA. Once collected, they can be ground into pellets and used in a variety of applications. Here’s a sampling of Nomacorc closure recycling possibilities:
- Food trays
- Food storage
- Computer hardware
- Cell phone cases
- Playground slides
- Floor pads
- Park benches
- Combined with wood to make composite wood
A Two-Pronged Collection Effort
There are two recapture programs set up for Nomacorc synthetics, one focusing on wineries and the other on consumers.
In the first program, a number of major wineries including Fetzer Vineyards, Trinchero Family Estates, and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, have teamed up with Nomacorc to collect surplus corks. Wineries routinely end up with surplus corks, sometimes from bottling line washouts or from expunging excess wine inventory. The corks are collected in gaylords, large bulk bin cartons that hold 40,000 to 45,000 corks, and are sold to polymer companies.
In the first two months of 2014, Nomacorc collected 28 gaylords, or 1.1 million corks, in the pre-consumer program.
That’s a lot of corks.
On the post-consumer side of things, Nomacorc has set up more than 250 collection bins at retailers including Spec’s, a Texas-based chain of superstores, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits in Florida, and Total Wine and More. In the Texas and Florida programs, about 4 million corks were collected by the first half of this year.
Think Globally, Act Locally
In the Nomacorc programs, corks are collected and recycled regionally—it doesn’t make a lot of sense to go to the trouble of recycling something and then putting it on a gas-burning truck for 48 hours. And, all proceeds go to charities, such as organizations researching cancer cures or AtWork.org, a Seattle-based back-to-work assistance program for adults facing physical or mental challenges.
Nomacorc recycled corks bring in 15 cents to 30 cents a pound, and current numbers stand at about 5 million collected annually, with $15,000 going to charity.
One problem with collection programs is that consumers tend to mix up natural and synthetic corks. That won’t work in recycling; they need sorting. Nomacorc has partnered with AtWork for sorting labor, donating whatever proceeds are left over after the labor costs.
Natural Corks and Screw Caps
Natural cork producers have also established cork collection programs. According to the Cork Quality Council, a natural cork trade association, ReCork and Cork ReHarvest, two organizations funded by the natural cork industry, report collecting about 100 million corks over the past six years. Primary uses for the ground-up recycled corks include turning them into sandal soles; they’re also used by home hobbyists and in schools.
Screw caps, too, are recyclable; the closures can be melted down and made into new metal alloys. However, there are a few obstacles that must be overcome. The plastic liner inside the cap needs to be removed before recycling; some facilities burn it off. As with other closures, size is a problem. Many recycling facilities suggest consumers crimp the caps inside other aluminum cans, a tricky maneuver. Another option is to roll the caps inside tin foil.
One challenge unique to screw caps is the collar that goes around the bottle neck. That can’t go into recycled glass, so what happens is the glass below the collar is crushed into cullet and the top falls to the floor, landfill bound.
What about composting? Natural cork that’s 100 percent bark can go into compost, although not organic compost since most have come into contact with the added sulfites in wine. (An exception would be corks used in the relatively small niche of organic wines.)
The corks are mostly used to add air to the compost; they eventually will rise to the surface. Some recycling facilities, including those in Seattle and Portland, prefer not to have cork in compost because it’s so dense. Instead, they encourage consumers to go the retail collection route.
And it’s important to note that not all natural corks are created equal.
At the top of the tier are corks made out of whole pieces of bark cut from the cork tree. Beyond that are a number of technical cork products. Those include 1+1 corks, which have a 100 percent natural cork disk at top and bottom and a midsection made up of ground up cork stuck together with glue—not a compostable item. The most easily recognizable 1+1 closures are the corks typically used to seal Champagne and other sparkling wines.
Other types of natural cork include agglomerate (chunks of cork glued together), and micro-agglomerate (cork dust molded into the shape of a cork and held together with glues and resins). At the bottom of the tier are colmated corks, which are low-quality, porous corks that have been sprayed with resins to fill in the holes. On close inspection, these look as though they’ve been spray-painted. As with 1+1s, these corks’ use of synthetic resins and glues make the products unsuitable for composting programs.
Expansion Is in the Cards
Moving forward, Nomacorc plans to expand collection efforts both at the pre- and post-consumer level. New programs have been launched in Seattle and Southern California.
High rollers take note: Nomacorc recycling collection boxes have just gone in at 19 Caesar’s Palace properties.
At less than 2 inches tall, the cork isn’t a big part of wine packaging. But Nomacorc is betting it’s a reclaimable asset worth going after.
Natural Cork Photo Credit: Flickr