Although a recent entrant to the packaging world, cork has successfully fulfilled various roles over the years — including the likes bottle stoppers and sandals
Commonly found plugging wine bottles, cork is also being seen by some, including beauty retailer Lush, as an environmentally friendly alternative to certain types of packaging.
Business re-investing to find new materials for eco-friendly packaging is not a new phenomenon, with many companies urgently looking to tackle the plastic problem.
The Coca-Cola Company recently revealed it has developed plastic bottles made from sea plastic, while baker Warburtons has said it’s on the verge of delivering compostable packaging for its bread products.
Now Lush is using cork to see if the naturally occurring material could become the next innovative step in sustainable packaging.
What is cork and how is it produced?
A natural material derived from oak trees, cork’s use in products dates back thousands of years.
The material was first used as a stopper for bottles, with examples of this found in tombs dating back to Ancient Egypt.
The Romans and Greeks were also enthusiastic exponents of cork, using it for floats on fishing nets and even insulating homes.
Over the centuries, cork’s main use has been as a bottle-stopper, commonly found atop bottles of champagne.
How is cork sourced?
Cork is derived from a type of oak tree called a Quercus suber, which is commonly present in the Western Mediterranean and across the Iberian Peninsula.
Part of the reason why the material occurs is as a defence against drought, with it also being produced as protection from forest fires.
Portugal produces around half of the world’s cork, with the material harvested from each tree ever 10 years, allowing time for the material to grow back.
Unlike some trees, bark on the Quercus suber tree can be fully removed without harming the trunk.
The harvested cork is then left to air for six weeks to improve the quality of the final material.
How Lush is using cork to manufacturer packaging
The beauty product manufacturer and retailer is no stranger to striving for sustainability, with many of its products using as little packaging as possible.
Of the packaging it does have in its stores, 90%, by weight, is made from recycled materials.
Lush aims to increase this to 100% recyclable or compostable as soon as possible, with the introduction of cork seen as a big step towards achieving its ambition.
The firm has recently invested in the new packaging solution, working with Portuguese supplier Cork Connections.
Speaking at the Packaging Innovations conference in September, Lush creative buyer for packaging Nick Gumery said: “We invested in these people on the ground… to set up the whole business cost around £150,000.
“They make the cork pot for us, they charge us €5 (£4.46) per pot, we sell them at £7.95, so relatively low margins.
“As a company, we are expecting less, but we are looking at the whole picture, the whole lifecycle of the material, and the people and the companies that are involved in that, so a fair share for everybody.”
Lush is currently receiving around 35,000 pots a year, with plans to increase this to 500,000 in the near future.
Its purchase price of €5 per pot gets largely reinvested to aid the cost of a forest restoration and regeneration programme.
The initial consignment of 6,000 pots arrived in the UK on 4 July this year — transported from Portugal via the SV Gallant, a sail-powered freighter.
Explaining the cork pots’ primary purpose in-store, Gumery said: “You can put a product in it, and you take it away, such as a shampoo bar which can be used for 50 washes, come back, bring your cork pot and put your naked product in it.
“So the cork pot can last five, ten, fifteen twenty years, but also at the end of life, you can pop it in your garden, put it in your compost and it will disappear.
“So no collections, no energy use, nothing needed to put into the recycling centre.”
As of August 2019, Lush’s cork pots achieved certification from the Carbon Trust as a carbon-neutral packaging product.
Each 35kg cork pot removes approximately 1.2kg of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere.