Sustainable Cork: Good for More Than Flooring!

Photo: Francois/FlickrBy now, many of us are aware of the beauty of cork as a flooring material. Cork floors come in a range of shades and styles, and all of them are durable and gorgeous. They're also sturdy and they hold up well underfoot, putting a little spring in your step and acting as shock absorbers for tired legs and feet, which makes cork flooring useful in places like the kitchen where people tend to do a lot of standing.

One of the reasons cork has become so popular beyond its versatility as a flooring material and natural beauty is its environmental friendliness. Flooring material using cork is typically made from waste material generated during the wine cork manufacturing process. The leftover cork, an entirely natural material, is mixed with adhesives and processed to create various flooring products.

Cork itself is already highly sustainable when it is managed and harvested in the traditional way. This product is the outer layer of bark from the cork oak tree, and it's carefully stripped away while leaving the living part of the tree intact underneath. Farmers wait at least nine years between harvests to allow the trees to recover, allowing them to continue producing for decades and sometimes hundreds of years. In the down time, the cork forest is used as habitat and shelter for pigs, and farmers produce other crops like olives.

Coming up with a sustainable product from the waste of an already sustainable product is a pretty neat trick, and cork floors are fantastic, but did you know that there are other uses for waste cork? Maybe you don't want a cork floor or you're not thinking about replacing flooring right now, but that doesn't mean you can't benefit from working with cork in some other area of your home -- like the walls.

Yes, that's right. Cork insulation products are available, and they are a fantastic choice for a high insulation value combined with, of course, sustainability. Insulation is also made from waste cork, but it's treated with high pressure steam to force the material to expand, releasing a binding agent that allows companies to create board insulation that's extremely solid and strong. These boards in turn can be cut down to size, and they're available in a range of thicknesses to meet different insulating needs. As a bonus, they're naturally fire resistant, allowing homes to meet fire resistance standards without the use of flame retardant chemicals.

Here's another use of "waste" cork: acoustical tiles. If you have a room that needs to be soundproofed, cork tiles can make a great sustainable choice, whether you're setting up a home studio or wanting to limit street noise. The tiles are available in a range of styles and colors to go with various decor schemes, and they provide fantastic noise insulation value. Some even have self-adhesive backing to make them a cinch to install.

Cork is also available in underlayment sheets for wood and tile floors. The advantage to a cork underlayment, aside from the added insulation for warmth, is the noise insulation. If you're flooring in an apartment building or a house where there are concerns about noise bleeding through floors (or noisy feet clattering on the floor), cork underlayments can be a great choice. Thinking about tile for your Houston flat? Ask your Houston tile company about cork underlayments so you can maintain a good relationship with the neighbors!

With all these uses for cork, it's definiterly worth considering this sustainable building material for flooring and other building projects. Many of the firms at the forefront of cork innovation are Portuguese, reflecting the fact that Portugal is a major pork producer, so be sure to keep up with developments from this forward-thinking European nation!

And, of course, wine corks have a myriad of uses all on their own -- so don't toss them when you're done with that pinot.

Katie Marks writes for

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