With society’s reliance on modern technology – it is easy for us to forget that many “natural” materials have been around long before plastics and factories. While we all encounter products like cork and rubber on a daily basis – very few of us, actually know where these substances come from.
Gaining an understanding of the origins of our everyday materials can help cultivate a higher appreciation for what we have and the effort that goes into their creation.
How is cork made?
While cork has been a popular material for hundreds of years, very few people actually know where cork comes from. Surprisingly, natural cork is actually “grown” on trees – the Cork Oak Tree to be specific.
Cork comes from the bark of the tree. Once these special oak trees reach peak maturity, they are harvested for cork. Traditional techniques of harvesting cork include stripping the bark from the tree using only an ax. An expert will perform the removal in a way that allows the tree to grow its bark back fully for later harvesting.
Before the raw materials become wine stoppers and yoga mats, they need to undergo a special preparatory process. This involves leaving the bark outside to “cure” for several months before it is brought to a facility to be properly cleaned.
Cleaning not only removes dirt in debris – it changes the texture of the cork, giving it a softer and more malleable feeling. After this, the bark is boiled and treated with a fungicide. Any bark that doesn’t “survive” the process will be removed from the batch so that the final materials used in creating products are top quality.
The remaining bark is completely dried out over a couple of weeks. Finally, either by hand or with modern tools, the bark is formed into different cork products from coasters to yoga mats.
How is natural rubber made?
Natural rubber is actually harvested directly from tree sap. Humans have been harvesting sap in order to create elastic products for over ten centuries. There are a few species of trees that produce a special type of sap known as latex. There are thousands of plants where you can extract latex from – a large portion of the industry relies on “rubber trees.”
In a process akin to the manufacturing of maple syrup, rubber makers “tap” trees to extract the latex hidden inside. For the most part, this can be achieved sustainably. This means that you don’t need to kill the rubber tree in the process of extracting latex. Unfortunately, there are the phenomena of “slaughter tapping.” When a company used slaughter tapping techniques, the extracted excessive quantities in one go – effectively killing the tree.
These practices are counterproductive for both the company and the environment. Luckily, modern practices use sustainable methods that preserve the health of the rubber tree.
Due to the high demand for rubber and modern emphasis on sustainability, synthetic variations of rubber are also used. These synthetic rubbers are not plant-based. Instead, they are lab-grown concoction created by scientists.
Both synthetic and natural rubber cannot be used in their pure or raw form. Several different substances need to be added to the sap in order to stay keep its form in both high and low temperatures. Many times, other substances, such as carbon, are also added to strengthen the rubber mixture.
After it has gone through these processes, it is cooled and sent to a facility to undergo vulcanization. Vulcanization is a heat treatment process where the rubber is cooked, so it does not fall apart later.
The final product is picked clean of brittle or broken pieces so that only the strongest materials remain. This product is then molded into its final form – whether it be a tire or a yoga mat.
Are they vegan?
Both rubber and cork are 100% vegan. These sustainable materials can also be found as a substitute for non-vegan substances. You can use these products with a clear conscious knowing that no animals were harmed or exploited during the manufacturing of these products. In fact, most of the time, the materials can be produced without even harming any plants!
Are they biodegradable?
Cork is a 100% natural product. Therefore, cork products are completely biodegradable. Don’t worry – it still takes quite some time for the cork to decompose completely, so you don’t need to worry about it falling apart during your workouts.
The rubber, on the other hand, can be a little bit tricky. While completely natural rubber is biodegradable, synthetic variants can be a little bit tricky. You simply need to know whether or not your rubber products are plant-based or not. Plant-based items are always biodegradable.
Remember, there is always the chance for both materials to have a second life through recycling! For example, an old rubber tire can be made into a shoe, and old wine corks can be made into yoga mats or corkboards!