Thanks to my journey in pursuit of cork in Portugal where I followed this material from its harvest to its transformation, I discovered how cork was a perfectly ecological material whose history, from the cork oak to the ground in cork deserves attention.
I invite you to follow in the footsteps of cork in Portugal and for those in a hurry, go to the end of the article for my summary video. But if you have 3 minutes in front of you, I advise you to continue reading because you will be won over, I’m sure.
The history of cork oak
In Portugal, the cork oak forest, also called suberaie, occupies 736,000 hectares. When you plant a cork oak, the first harvest is usually done around 20 years later. Afterwards, the bark grows back and is recovered every 9 years. On average, the bark is harvested sixteen times during the life of a tree.
Unlike other materials of plant origin, the tree is not felled but on the contrary maintained by the harvest. This makes it a particularly ecological material, especially since cork is recyclable.
Also the tree itself is recognized for its action for the preservation of biodiversity. Indeed the forest hosts more than 100 species of plants, reptiles and amphibians as well as hundreds of species of birds.
Cork oak is therefore a heritage that has been passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes the one who plants the tree will not be there for its first harvest. But he is planting a seed of hope for the health of our planet.
Harvesting from the cork oak
A few kilometers from Lisbon, we stopped in the middle of the cork oak forest to admire the work of the harvesters.
The bark is therefore harvested every 9 years. In the meantime, the tree is rebuilding its shell. And the harvesters cherish it, take care of it. You should know that the bark to regrow requires the tree to consume more CO2 than if its bark was already in place. The cultivation and harvesting of cork is therefore particularly beneficial to the planet.
Two craftsmen per tree, each armed with a machete, they harvest the bark of the tree in an almost artistic movement, it is so pleasant to watch. Between them, they do not communicate. Yet they work on the same tree and do not hurt each other. It is impressive to watch. Indeed, they master this gymnastics so much that they do not need to talk to each other to find out who needs an extra blow from the other’s machete. I could have admired them for hours. And to this beautiful spectacle was added the “crac crac” of the bark which is separated from the tree. It was a beautiful ballet.
This operation is called demascling. First, the bark is cut without damaging the trunk. Then the machete is slipped between the trunk and the bark. Finally, the harvester permanently loosens the bark. This is when the significant noise that I liked so much occurs.
Meanwhile, another team accompanied by a tractor collects pieces of cork that accumulate at the feet of trees. And under this blazing sun – we are in the middle of June, in Portugal – A woman distributes glasses of water.
From cork oak to cork flooring
We now follow the tractor to a first factory. There, the cork is stored in the sun. The pieces of bark piled on top of each other dry quietly. The cork will then be sorted to determine its final destination. The more beautiful it is, the more likely it is to end up in the hands of a designer. Then it will be washed in large steam baths. Then, he will take different routes depending on the transformation that will be allocated to him: cork floor, bottle stopper, decorative cork …
We left with a load of cork which was intended to become a floor covering. We therefore headed north near Porto. In this second Amorim factory, which notably manufactures the Wicanders cork flooring, I admired a new ballet. I expected tons of machines and a fully automated process. But eventually, the machine passes to the man who gives to a second machine. Workers and machines work together.
In the footsteps of the cork floor
I captured some videos of these movements from the cork oak harvest to the cork floor. I hope with this new episode of Bon Clem will transmit my passion for this ecological material to you.