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Recycling of wine corks by Agneta Green

“Puts the finger on a natural material that is used every day in both restaurants and homes all over the world, and which is usually thrown in the garbage. The proposal is about using innovative solutions to develop small and large circuits to collect and reuse the material for classic and new products.” Motivation of the jury.

Oaxen Krog, one of the most highly rated restaurants in Sweden, which is now closed, recycled 16 different materials, or fractions as they are called in technical language. It is a natural part of the work of not wasting the earth’s finite resources and of being a pioneer in the restaurant industry.

– Much of today’s luxury consumption takes place in our workplaces, the restaurants, says Agneta Green, co-founder of Oaxen Krog together with Magnus Ek. Therefore, we must together step into the breach, take responsibility and lead the way in minimising resource consumption.

Green has long had in the back of her mind to add a 17th recycling material. But only when a visiting Argentinian server brought up the cork just over a year ago did her idea start to take form.

– She chose to come to us because she considered us to be environmentally conscious and thought it strange that we recycle so many materials, but not the corks.

Even before, when the restaurant was located on the island of Oaxen in Stockholm’s southern archipelago, Green and Ek used leftover wine corks in different ways in the business – as wedges under moving tables, door stops and supports between stacks of plates.

– Magnus made small display stands of them on the Christmas tables so that the guests could find the dishes more easily.

But now the level of ambition is different. It is about creating a new national system for the recycling of natural corks that will target both businesses with a dispensing license and private individuals, but also [state-owned liquor store chain] Systembolaget and the retail and food trade.

– The hope is to find new environmentally friendly areas of use for products and industries that have not previously used cork. And to increase general awareness of different types of recycling that can result in concrete products and purposes.

Of all the things that are consumed and thrown away on a daily basis, the wine cork may seem like a minor piece of the puzzle, but the production of natural cork and the maintenance of the world’s cork forests are of great importance.

In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund published the report Cork Screwed?, warning that the world’s cork stocks were threatened and headed for economic and environmental crisis, and that the reduced demand for natural cork could quickly lead to the disappearance of the unique ecosystem of the cork forests and tens of thousands of jobs – especially if the then rapid trend in the wine industry from natural cork to synthetic materials or screw corks continued. Since then, the winds have partly turned. Today, demand is more stable, not only for wine corks, but also for cork for other uses.

There are approximately 2.2 million hectares of cork oak forests in the world, 34 percent of which are in Portugal, 27 percent in Spain and 18 percent in Morocco. Of the total production of approximately 200,000 tons of cork, half comes from Portugal. The cork oak forests are the natural habitat for endangered populations of animals such as the Spanish imperial eagle, the Berber red deer and the Iberian lynx.

Portugal alone produces a staggering 40 million wine corks per day, but only about 25 percent of total cork production goes into wine corks. The rest is used in surfboards, shoes, sandals and clothing where cork is a vegan alternative to leather. Large quantities of cork are also used on a large scale in the construction industry, for insulation, flooring and as a damping material. There are even houses made entirely of recycled cork. From that point of view, Green’s timing is perfect: the times look bright for sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable materials such as natural cork.

– The first step is a more in-depth study of the range of wine corks that are consumed in Sweden, and finding potential partners for product development and manufacturing, says Green. It will also be about producing financial analyses.

Agneta Green was coached by a team from Circular Gastronomy and Hasse Söderberg, CEO of the company Greenchild, which carries out recycling of source-sorted waste. The idea was further developed into a circular vision that the recycled cork could be used for gardening supplies, like raised beds, growing pots and other tools for vegetable farming – closing a circular loop from restaurant to farm, and back to restaurant.