Natural Cork Flooring
Cork is considered to be one of the most ecologically friendly floor surface covering options available. Natural and readily renewable, the production of these materials has almost no negative impact on the environment. At the same time they are also completely biodegradable, which means that they will break back down naturally into the earth when disposed of.
How Natural Cork Flooring Is Made
Cork flooring is manufactured from the bark of the Cork Oak Tree (Quercus Suber), an evergreen that grows mostly in southern Europe and northern Africa around the Mediterranean sea. This material has a substance known as Suberin in it, which makes the material springy and durable, while also giving it inherent antimicrobial abilities.
Harvesting the bark from the Cork Oak is a gentle process that does no harm to the tree itself, and allows it to keep growing through and afterwards. Because of this Cork Oak plants can fully regenerate their outer bark layer every 9 – 10 years, and a well tended crop can continue to produce functional materials for decades without having to be replanted.
The cycle of harvesting and growing that these plants undergo is one that requires care and timing in order to achieve optimal results. The Cork Oak needs to be allowed to grow uninterrupted for at least 25 years before the bark is first removed. It’s then important to allow the bark to fully regenerate before removing it again, to ensure the optimal health and output of these trees. For these reasons the cork manufacturing industry is heavily regulated and strictly maintained.
Recycled Cork Flooring
The vast majority of cork is used to make stoppers for wine bottles, and when the material is first manufactured the initial run is generally cut to this purpose. It is then the leftover waste materials from the cut out stoppers that is then reprocessed, and used to make things like cork boards and cork flooring tiles. In this ecologically friendly process every scrap of cork ends up getting used, with waste from the first process, being employed to manufacture flooring in the second.
Biodegradable: A natural product, cork can be disposed of at the end of its functional use, and it will break back down into the environment harmlessly in just a few years. The one caveat is if a toxic adhesive was used in the installation it can cause some contamination to the ground soil as the cork materials begin to dissolve.
Life Cycle: A properly maintained cork floor should be able to structurally last for as long as 25 years. However cork is a relatively soft material, so things like pet nails, high heels, and dropped utensils can all cause minor blemishes in the surface. Refinishing can be done to remove many of those imperfections, but they will re-accumulate over time. That means that the functional life of the floor will be determined by your own ability to maintain, protect, and accept the soft facade of cork tiles.
Adhesives: Some cork flooring adhesives will contain harmful toxins or Volatile Organic Chemicals. This can fill a room with fumes during installation, and may continue to offgas slightly afterwards. However this can be avoided with due diligence by ensuring that you only use natural, ecologically friendly adhesives in any installation project.
Maintenance: Cork flooring will need to be sealed on a regular basis to protect its surface from stains. However the agent used is not harmful to the environment, and dissolves naturally over time. Regular cleaning should just consist of sweeping and or vacuuming with a soft hose attachment. Mopping is generally not recommended, and you should never use any harsh abrasive cleansers on a cork floor.
Transport: Portugal is responsible for producing 50% of the world’s cork, with most of the rest coming from Spain, Italy, and the rest of southern Europe. Depending on where your job site is this may mean that some transport is required to acquire cork flooring, and that can add a carbon footprint to the material. Luckily cork is so lightweight that the fuel expenditure to move it is not that extensive.