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The Curious Case of Cork

Saving the cork forests and inventing truly sustainable cork-tainers

Cork oak forests are nothing like potato fields. But in Portugal’s Alentejo region, many are managed as if they are, with devastating consequences. Tobias, a member of the not-for-profit group Eco Interventions, is teaching locals how to regenerate these native forests. And he’s helping Lush create a new, truly sustainable shampoo bar case along the way.

The Cork Conundrum

Drive the dusty earth roads of the Alentejo and it’s not uncommon to pass by mountains of harvested cork bark awaiting collection. Officially, Portugal loves cork. So much so, that in December 2011, the cork oak was unanimously declared to be Portugal’s national tree.

Tobias puts it like this, “Everybody here in the Alentejo region... when you talk about forests they think about cork. And they’re really sad that the trees are dying actually. It’s a big concern for them. They just don’t understand that they are killing them.”

Fear of fast-spreading fires has led many landowners to unintentionally degrade the forests through practices such as clearing away understory. Some also plough deep furrows (much like you might a potato field) which damages the root systems of the trees.

The well-managed cork oak forests in the Alentejo look like jungles. More than 25 different tree species spread their boughs and shade the ground below from the intense heat of the sun.

“Then you have the understory,” says Tobias, “You have the strawberry tree, which is a tree that is giving red fruit. Everybody eats it. All the animals do. And the people are making alcohol out of it. Then you have so many layers of other vegetation and lots of fungi. You will have mushrooms that you can collect. It’s a really super-complex ecosystem.”

Finding intelligent ways to work with nature and re-educate locals on how to sustainably manage the land is the self-appointed role of Eco Interventions. Thankfully, they’re not short of ideas. One of their most important is offering lower rates to landowners than ploughing companies to clear their ground of flammable brush. This is a win-win scenario: Eco Interventions makes the most of the opportunity for re-education while also replanting native species; landowners enjoy healthier soil and trees for a cheaper price.

Lush Creates the Cork-tainer

On September 21st, 2016, Nick Gumery, a member of the Lush Buying team, and Tom Chambers, from the Lush Regeneration and Sustainability Circle, travelled to the Alentejo to see Eco Interventions’ work in action. While visiting, they struck upon a corker of an idea. One of the items on Nick’s shopping list for Lush was shampoo bar tins and for some time he’d been trying to source a more environmentally-friendly option than aluminum to make them from. In the cork forests of Portugal, he found a possible solution growing right in front of him.

Our new cork pots fit shampoo bars perfectly.

Lush’s Seanik Shampoo Bar sits nestled in a new cork pot.

Tom explains, “Cork is harvested no more often than every nine years (that’s a legal limit to prevent stressing the trees). People may be confused and think we are harvesting the trees. Of course not! It is the fact that we can harvest the bark every nine or ten years or more that keeps these trees in the landscape.” What’s more, at the end of its life, your cork case can return to the earth to nourish the soil without leaving any toxic residue.

Tobias and his teammate Luis Matius got to work in the cork lab—an independent offshoot project of Eco Interventions—and quickly made a prototype shampoo bar case using an ingenuitive self-built machine. The cork-tainers looked great, so the baton was passed to Giles from Lush’s Green Hub to apply his engineering skills to tweaking the production process and making it more efficient. In November 2017, the first batch was ready for Lush customers.

Tom and Nick have already been testing them out (lucky things!) and have got some top tips to share:

  • The cork tins will be perfectly happy in your shower or bathroom. “We find that the cork draws the moisture away from the shampoo bar and therefore contributes to preserving the product,” says Nick.
  • After use, try popping your shampoo bar in the cork lid to help it dry faster.
  • Give your cork case a quick wash out once a month (any shampoo bar left in the cork pot will work great) and leave it to dry overnight.
  • Remember you can refill your case when you replace your shampoo bar.
  • Check them out in the bath... they float!

Soon, the machinery will travel to Portugal where Luis and Tobias have big plans for “a local factory which can bring the natural resource from the forest to the final consumer. This will create many jobs for locals. People will be able to replace products made from plastic or unsustainable materials with cork ones. And using the cork and selling these products will support the regeneration of the native forest. We’re going to use shampoo bar cases to start a whole sustainable small cork industry!”