Could Cork Save the Beauty Industry's Carbon Footprint?

When you think of a cork, if you do, you probably think of wine stoppers, or maybe dartboards. But cork jars and compacts? Those are new. They don't exactly glisten in a shelfie, but some sustainability experts are banking on cork to help shrink the beauty industry's carbon footprint — a Herculean task considering that, in 2018, almost 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were created for beauty and personal-care products in the U.S.

Cork offers a renewable way forward: It is natural and biodegradable (it gets broken down by insects over several years). Cork is harvested from the cork oak tree (quercus suber) found in the western Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast, in seven countries (including Morocco, Portugal, Spain, and France). And cork can be cut from a layer of bark without harming trees. Much as a shorn sheep regrows wool, cork regenerates — though a lot slower (a 25-year-old cork oak tree can be responsibly stripped of its cork once every nine to 12 years). 

The cork cell is about 90 percent air, making it light and insulating to the point of being virtually nonporous, which is why cork seals wine in bottles — and why it's capable of packaging serums without sucking up precious product or letting it leak.

But the most persuasive argument for cork packaging may be this: "Harvesting cork 'forces' the tree to remanufacture its bark, and therefore to use photosynthesis and carbon dioxide from the air, [which] helps to mitigate greenhouse gases and fight climate change," says Renaud Piazzetta, a forest engineer and director of the nonprofit research group Mediterranean Cork Institute. 

On average, cork trees can live between 150 and 200 years, but some may be several centuries old. Miraculously, "cork trees are not highly combustible. The cork bark protects [other] parts of the tree, enabling them to sequester carbon dioxide even when wildfires decimate a forest," says Piazzetta.

Lush claims that its Cork Pot (currently available in the U.K.), for storing shampoo bars, is carbon- negative — harvesting the cork removes more carbon dioxide from the air than is emitted in producing the pot. This is just one of the big advantages cork has over other sustainable packaging solutions: Cork is far lighter than glass, which leaves behind a sizable carbon footprint in shipping. Plus, "cosmetics containers are often made out of a type of glass that recyclers do not want," says Nina Goodrich, executive director of the sustainable material advocacy group GreenBlue. 

Birkenstock, which uses cork for the footbed of its shoes, even released a line of suberin-based skin-care products in the U.S. earlier this year. (Suberin, a waxy substance that is part of cork's cell walls, may smooth skin.) The line's packaging includes cork caps and 100 percent recyclable materials like aluminum.

And cork can be upcycled. Munich-based Corpack manufactures cosmetics containers using a blend that includes cork powder leftover from wine cork production. By now you're probably wondering: Why aren't all of my lipsticks packaged in cork? Well, fungi can grow on cork and might make a product go bad. 

Though it is effective for single-use purposes, like sealing wine, after it's used, cork expands. But Corpack is developing new blends of cork and other biodegradable materials. "More and more brands are approaching us about cork and cork-blend packaging," says Corpack CEO Jean-Paul Corbeil, who is working with brands like Kneipp. "We're just at the very beginning."

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