Benefits of Cork Flooring

Cork flooring is soft underfoot and a sustainable option.

  • cork floor
    Cork flooring comes in a variety of shades and patterns.
  • cork harvest
    Harvesting bark from cork trees doesn't kill the trees.

  • cork floor
  • cork harvest

If you’re looking for warm, cushiony flooring, think cork. Soft like suede, it has the insulating qualities and resiliency of carpet; the easy-to-clean surface of wood or tile; plus luxurious appeal from its earthy colors and rich visual texture. Made from tree bark, it’s also a natural and renewable resource, so it’s environmentally friendly, right?

The answer is yes, but with a footnote.

Cork has a multitude of green characteristics. The material is acquired by stripping most of the outer bark from the cork oak tree. This regular harvesting does the tree no harm, and the bark grows back, to be stripped again every nine years. The trees live for 200 years or so, and the forests, called Montados, are highly prized and passed down through generations of families in the cork-producing business.

Even cork processing is relatively straightforward: The cork sheets or pieces are cured, boiled and pressed. Scraps are collected for reuse, so almost nothing is wasted.

Yet for those of us in North America trying to be more eco-friendly, cork has a notable drawback: It comes from Europe. Forests of Quercus suber, the one oak species that produces cork, grow in the Mediterranean, primarily in Portugal. Fuel consumption from shipping cork adds to the embodied energy in every cork flooring product. Although the trees have been successfully grown in California, they haven’t produced the corky bark, likely from a subtle difference in the ecosystem.

The dilemma of long-distance shipping, however, is counter-balanced by the truly urgent need to preserve cork oak forests. Nora Berrahmouni, Mediterranean forest unit director at the environmental nonprofit World Wildlife Federation (WWF), says that cork forest ecosystems are endangered by increasing population growth and forest clearing. With the loss of viable Montados, “there could be intensification in forest fires, a loss of irreplaceable biodiversity and an accelerated desertification process,” she says.

Paul Cheney
1/20/2009 11:26:18 PM

The idea of recycling corks is odd indeed. Seems like a lot of wine. I live in Napa County so cork is plentiful. I have always sensed the value of a cork, really. This article may have me storing up corks for the winter. Honestly, I will bookmark ReCork America, just for fun information and endless possibilities.

1/18/2009 7:29:17 PM

On page 2 or 3 you mention asking about volatile organic compounds - I think you meant volatile OUTGASSING compounds. These are produced by some vinyls and plastics. If you have a new car with vinyl seats you may even notice a film on the inside of your windows. It comes from the outgassing compounds in the vinyl. It is unavoidable. I suppose that, as would be entirely appropriate for a writer in Mother Earth News, you automatically typed "organic" once you hit the "o" key! Great article about cork floors, I had not even thought of this.

12/15/2008 10:22:30 AM

Thanks for such positive feedback, all! In response to Sandra's observation that there are cork oaks in California, there certainly are, as I mentioned. But the bark they produce is not of suitable "corky" quality for commercial use. In response to Anna, I strongly suggest you start your quest by calling some of the manufacturers listed. But water runs downhill, and something like 2/3 of all basements in this country have water in them from time to time. Good luck!



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