recycle corks

Americans drink a total of 1.1 billion gallons of wine every year, which works out to more than 6 billion bottles – now, that’s a lot of corks!

Most of these corks are synthetic, though some are made of natural cork. Either way, you can recycle corks or repurpose them, regardless of the material they’re made from.

Are corks recyclable?

As stated yes, you can recycle corks. However, the recycling process and facilities that accept corks can vary, depending on what the corks are made from.

Essentially, there are two types of corks used in wine bottles today: natural corks, and synthetic corks (which are made of plastic). Let’s take a look at each material and how you can recycle them.

How to recycle natural corks

Natural cork is made from the bark of the cork tree. This is a large tree originally from Asia that is now grown all over the world. It is 100% biodegradable and can be harvested by stripping the bark and without damaging the tree, making this a highly sustainable material.

cork tree
The outer surface of the cork tree is used to make wine corks

Cork can be harvested from the tree every nine to 12 years, and the trees live for up to 300 years. Furthermore, cork forests are some of the most bio-diverse types of forests in the world, providing an environment for endemic plants as well as endangered animals.

Cork is not only ideal for use in sealing wine bottles, but this highly durable material can also be used to make a range of products, from insulation and flooring to footwear and yoga blocks. Therefore, many recycling facilities and manufacturers take old corks to use as raw material to make new items.

cork stoppers made from natural cork
Used wine corks can be used to make new cork items

You can also see if there’s a cork dropbox near you. Organizations like RECORK run programs that make it easy to recycle corks – as they collect and repurpose it into new products. Check their locator tool to see if they have a drop off location in your area. 

Other similar programs for recycling natural corks:

  • The Cork Forest Conservation Alliance partners with companies that make products from reclaimed cork. The organization has a large number of drop-off locations that accept natural cork only.
  • WIDGETCO runs a sustainability initiative called Cork Club. The homewares company will send you free shipping labels to send in your natural corks which they use to create their products. For every cork received, they donate 2 cents to one of a range of organizations working in forest and ocean conservation.
  • Whole Foods Market works with the non-profit Cork ReHarvest to recycle corks by providing drop-off boxes in all of their stores. The corks are then sent to local recyclers in your area, who use them to create anything from floor tiles to wine shippers and post-consumer products.

How to recycle plastic corks

Despite being a sustainable material, like most natural resources, natural cork is limited to the amount of cork trees that can be grown. This makes natural cork pretty expensive, and so these days they are typically only used in top-shelf wine bottles.

Instead, most wineries use more affordable and abundant plastic corks instead.

You’ve probably seen synthetic corks with “100% recyclable written on the side”. However, this doesn’t mean that you can put them with your curbside recycling.

It can actually be difficult to recycle corks made from plastic. Curbside recycling programs won’t typically accept these because it can be hard to tell what type of plastic they’re made from. Corks are also problematic for co-mingled recycling bins because their small size makes them tricky to separate out from other recyclables.

So, it’s worth checking with your local sanitation department if they’ll accept synthetic corks curbside, but don’t be surprised if they say no. If they do, check out Earth911’s online finder tool to see if there’s a recycling center near you that accepts corks.

You can also recycle corks made of plastic through mail-in programs like Terracycle. You’ll need to purchase a cork zero waste box at a cost, fill it with as many corks as you can, and then ship it back to Terracycle.

plastic wine corks
Before throwing plastic corks into the trash, make sure your curbside recycling program accepts them

To make it worth your while, you’ll probably want to collect up your old corks over an extended period of time before sending them in. You can also be a trendsetter and take collections from your friends, family members, and neighbors to fill the mail-in box more quickly!

How to recycle corks: a step-by-step guide

Here’s a summary of how to recycle corks, step by step:

1. Work out whether each cork is natural or synthetic. You can usually do this from the look and feel of the cork. Here’s what to look for:

  • Natural corks have an uneven, woody appearance with a spongy texture
  • Synthetic corks are typically smooth and rubbery in texture, with a somewhat shiny finish

2. Separate your corks into natural and synthetic.

3. For natural corks: check if you have a drop-off both in your area through RECORK, the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, Cork Club, or your local Whole Foods Market. Take your old corks in and simply drop them in the box!

4. For synthetic corks: contact your local municipality and check whether they take plastic corks for recycling, and if so, how – do they pick them up curbside or will you need to drop them off somewhere?

5. Otherwise, check Earth911’s locator tool to see if there’s a recycling facility in your area where you can recycle corks, or use a mail-in program like Terracycle to recycle your synthetic corks.

Other ways to dispose of corks responsibly

Besides recycling them, there are a few other ways that you can responsibly dispose of both plastic and natural corks without damaging the environment in the process.

Sell them

If you don’t opt to recycle corks, you might want to sell them instead. Natural corks are always in demand by crafters and others looking to make products from this material.

Therefore, you may be able to sell your corks on sites like:

wine corks etsy listing

To get the best return on your corks, be sure to clean them and photograph them nicely before posting online. They are used items after all, so there may be some staining or other signs of use that you’ll want to get rid of.

While there’s a market for natural corks, you’ll probably struggle to sell your plastic corks.

Give them away

Another option for those who find it difficult to recycle corks is to give them away instead. This is a particularly viable option if you have natural corks, because there are plenty of artists and craftspeople looking for this material. Check with upcycling groups in your area to see if anyone would like your old corks.

You may even have a local upcycling shop that would love to take these off your hands. Alternatively, you could list them on Freecycle, an online community that aims to find homes for unwanted items of all kinds.

Just be sure to specify the type of corks you’re offering, as crafters and DIYers are often only looking for natural corks.

Upcycle them

You can use corks of all varieties as a raw material for a range of DIY projects, including:

  • Bath mats
  • Lampshades
  • Flip flops
  • Coasters – check out this project for inspiration
  • A DIY corkboard like this one
  • Grind up natural corks and place them at the bottom of plant pots for better drainage – this material is especially great for orchids!

Compost them

This is another option that depends on the type of cork. Natural corks are completely organic and 100% biodegradable, so you can put them straight into your compost bin.

Cork does take a while to break down, so if you don’t want it hanging around your compost pile for months and months you can crush or shred them first. Equally, you can probably put natural corks with your green waste, but check with your sanitation department first, as rules vary depending on where you live.

However, it’s important to make sure that you’re definitely dealing with natural corks, as the plastic variety is not suitable for either composting or green waste.

FAQs about how to recycle corks

With the different types of corks around, knowing how to recycle these items can get pretty confusing. We’ve aimed to clear up your doubts by answering some of the most common questions on the topic below.

Can you recycle plastic corks?

Yes, you can recycle plastic corks. However, because it can be difficult to know exactly what type of plastic synthetic corks are made from, coupled with their small size, most areas don’t accept them for curbside recycling.

You’ll either need to find a recycling center that takes plastic corks, or pay for a mail-in program like Terracycle.

terracycle corks zero waste box
You can fill in Terracycle zero waste box with both natural and plastic corks

What’s the difference between synthetic and natural corks?

Natural cork is a highly sustainable material that is harvested from the bark of the cork tree. Corks made from this material are more expensive to produce than their synthetic counterparts, but much more eco-friendly and have lots of options for recycling.

On the other hand, synthetic corks are made from various types of plastic. These corks are more affordable to produce, but much less sustainable. They’re also more difficult to recycle.

Enjoy wine sustainably by recycling or repurposing your old corks!

Now you know how to recycle corks, you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying your favorite bottle of wine. The important first step is to determine the type of cork you’re dealing with: is it natural or synthetic?

From there, you’ll then be able to decide whether to take it to a drop-off program or recycling center, use a mail-in program, or sell or donate your corks to artists. You could even get creative and upcycle your old corks into a cool DIY project.

You may be surprised how many common household items you can recycle – take a look at our guides on how to responsibly dispose of bubble wrap, child car seats, and vhs tapes.

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