Environmental Responsibility

Cork is enjoying a resurgence in popularity today. From television design shows to shelter magazines, Natural Cork is seemingly everywhere and ostensibly the “hottest new product” on the market.

Many people think of cork as a relatively new and possibly unreliable option particularly as a surface flooring material. And yet, there are examples of Natural Cork floors in public buildings that were installed over 100-years ago and are still in use today. The Library of Congress in Washington, DC is one excellent case.

THE NATURAL CORK TREE

A member of the beech family, Quercus Suber or the cork oak tree grows in coastal regions of the Mediterranean. Seven countries comprise the bulk of the area where cork oak will grow. These countries are Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia with the majority of the production occurring in Portugal and Spain. Relatively slow growing, cork trees survive harsh conditions in depleted soil that will often support little else of value. There are examples of cork oak trees that are 400 to 500 years old, though the average life expectancy would be 120 to 200 years.

Unlike most trees where primary value is derived from the lumber of the trunk, Natural Cork is actually obtained from the bark of the tree. This unusually thick bark is made up of millions of tiny prism-shaped air pockets which create a resilient cushiony surface that offers several distinct advantages to the tree. Natural Cork is a natural fire inhibitor so the bark provides protection from wildfires common to the region. An inherent waxy substance, suberin, serves as an insect repellant eliminating threat from many usual agricultural pests. And the bark is regenerative, so its protective properties will grow back if damaged in any way.

NATURAL CORK AGRICULTURE

Grown on farms and harvested every 9 to 11 years, the financial benefit lies not in felling these trees but in keeping them alive and in production for generations.

Regulations necessitate that a cork tree may not be harvested until it is 20 to 25 years old. The material from this first harvest is known as “virgin” cork. Virgin bark is less desirable as it is tough and irregularly formed. The next harvest results in product that is called “secondary cork” which, though of better quality than virgin bark, is still not ideal. After extracting these first two layers of cork, subsequent harvests produce “amadia”. With the harvest of amadia, a cork oak tree has reached its optimum production value. At maturity a typical tree can produce upwards of 450 pounds of cork per harvest. This takes right around 50 years to achieve. Starting a cork tree farm is an investment in future generations.

Often cork farms are combined with other forms of agriculture such as raising pigs or growing another crop in and among the trees. These combinations work well for local farmers to balance the protracted production cycle of cork farming.

Natural Cork is still harvested by hand in the traditional method leaving the habitat intact and with minimal impact on the overall environment. Removal of the bark, known as “stripping”, must be done during the active growing season, June through August. Using hand tools, a series of cuts are made in the bark, one at ground level, one just below the first branches, and two vertical cuts joining these. The loosened bark is then pried off in two large sheets where possible and smaller bits if not. Sheets of cork are stacked and left for days to dry in the sun, before being sent to factory.

THE FLOORING OPTION

The ability to use cork in flooring applications was not discovered until the 19th century when American, John Smith, discovered agglomerated cork. Today, cork flooring is created from the post-industrial by-product of the bottle-stopper industry. This ‘waste’ material is ground up and then formed into sheets using minimal amounts of adhesive to bind the particles together under high pressure. The size, quantity, and type of cork granule in conjunction with varying degrees of pressure make the difference between “bulletin board” material and material suitable for flooring applications.

Historically, cork floors were finished in the same manner as any other wood flooring, i.e. with a paste wax buffed into the surface. However, the labor-intensive nature of this maintenance routine was seen as a real drawback when rolled sheet vinyl and similar ‘modern’ resilient surface options came on the market in the mid 20th century. Cork flooring fell out of favor and for perhaps 30 years was not readily available to the general public.

New finishing techniques and improved technologies have revived interest in cork over the past decade. Though still a small fraction of the overall floor coverings market, Natural Cork is enjoying a resurgence in popularity driven in large part by consumer demand. What does cork have to offer that sets it apart from other flooring choices? Quite a bit it turns out. In fact, no other floor covering can match the combined benefits of cork.

Green Building with Natural Cork®

With increased national and international attention placed on the environment and our natural resources, the trend toward taking care of our environment through independent and collective action has since developed into what is now known as the “Green” business ethic. Today’s average consumer is interested in healthy living and looks for products that support this ideal. Natural Cork is one of those products.

Natural Cork is environmentally correct as well as improving health and comfort for human indoor living. In our homes, Natural Cork floors create a warm, comfortable, resilient surface that is gentle underfoot, is anti-microbial, will not spread flame, and is inherently resistant to molds, mildews, and common pests. From harvest to production to installation, cork is environmentally sustainable, non-toxic, and healthy.

Natural Cork floors contribute to satisfying LEED credits for Rapidly Renewable Resources, Recycled Content, and Low Emitting Materials under the LEED Rating System. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings as administered by U.S. Green Building Council. USFloors is a member of the USGBC.

The determining factor for indoor air quality is the quantity of noxious emanations from volatile organic compounds in adhesives/binders and finishes. Natural Cork floors are produced with environmentally-friendly, water based adhesives/binders and finishes, such as our own Endura AR finish. Natural Cork® floating floors and parquet tiles are GREENGUARD® Children and Schools Indoor Air Quality Certified by the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, a 3rd party independent indoor air quality certifier recognized by LEED, National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), and many other institutions advocating green building both residentially and commercially. To learn more about the GREENGUARD® Indoor Air Quality Certification programs visit www.greenguard.org.