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Plastic Closures, Green or Green Washing?

Submitted By: Patrick Spencer, December 11, 2014
The ongoing debate over which wine closure is best for wine has shifted to a debate over which stopper is best for the environment: A natural cork closure or a manufactured plastic stopper. As astonishing as it may seem, a manufacturer of synthetic plastic stoppers is making the claim that the “Select Bio” closure is the “world’s first zero carbon footprint wine closure.” Even more astounding, the market appears to be buying this blatant example of “green washing,” (the dissemination of misleading information that conceals abuse of the environment in order to present a positive public image).

The claim of a “zero carbon footprint” is partially based upon the manufacturer’s disclosure that a percentage of its plastic stopper is made from “plant-based biopolymers derived from sugar cane.” Brazil has become the world’s largest supplier of sugar cane and it is estimated that 70 percent of Brazil’s 7 million acres of sugar cane is harvested by hand.

Cutting sugar cane by hand requires controlled fires in the fields to smoke out nasty snakes and tarantulas. Not only do these controlled burnings pollute the air with soot, risking worker health and safety, but also releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and nitrous oxide. According to the World Wildlife Fund and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the harvesting by hand of cane sugar results in the degradation of soils and aquatic systems, and the exploitation of cane cutters, transforming the land into a “carbon-spewing wasteland.” No amount of green washing can wipe away these ugly facts.

While sugar cane ethanol is less ecologically destructive than some other biofuels, its boosters have overlooked one key fact: You’ve got to plant sugar cane somewhere. Unfortunately, most of Brazil’s sugar cane production is in the Atlantic rainforest. There, sugar cane harvesting has led to deforestation and, paradoxically, reduced carbon sequestration and a larger carbon footprint.

The negative impact on the environment brought about by plastic corks does not end in the production process. Once produced, they have no place to go. They are not biodegradable. While they may be “fully recyclable” in theory, recycling statistics say otherwise. Here are some recycling facts for plastics in the U.S.:

A 2012 study by the Earth Institute states that less than 6.5% of the plastic used in the U.S. is recycled. The major portion of that comes from soft drink and water bottles. Municipal recycling centers do not recycle plastic wine closures as they are either too small to be picked out or are considered “multi layered resins.” This leaves more than 93.5 percent of all plastic products going into landfills, beaches or our oceans.

Compare this to the harvesting and recycling of natural cork. Cork harvesting is considered the most sustainable and environmentally friendly forestry on our planet. The harvesting contributes to the health of the trees and to the quality of life of the local inhabitants by providing high-paying jobs. These forests absorb over 20 million tons of CO2 each year and provide a significant amount of healthy clean oxygen, two critical factors in helping to combat climate change. They are also home to over 13,000 species of plants, animals and insects that are found nowhere else on earth.

Prior to the introduction of composite corks and other cork products, the unused bark was considered waste. Today, the “waste bark” is up-cycled into thousands of cork products, creating a 100% raw material usage. Once produced, cork is biodegradable, renewable and easily recycled. For example, in 2013 the Cork ReHarvest Program, with a zero carbon footprint, collected more than 80 tons of natural and composite cork stoppers, (18,000,000 corks) which were recycled into a wide variety of products. Natural and composite corks are continually being recycled and ground up to produce many new consumer products. In fact, virtually every cork product is a recycled product.

No matter how much green washing the manufacturers of plastic stoppers may apply to their marketing, the facts remain--only cork is sustainable, renewable, biodegradable and recyclable.