Portugal Part 3: Processing

The highest grade cork is taken in strips to become cork stoppers at a factory near Porto. Lower grade cork is chipped and brought to this processing centre, where it is condensed in preparation for transport to manufacturing facilities. There are mountains of fist sized chunks of cork everywhere and this is how the process begins. The chunks of cork are loaded onto a conveyor system where they are reduced to granules. The granulated cork eventually reaches one of the many steel autoclaves that are infused with steam heated to around 300 degrees celsius. Trapped in the pressurised chambers for twenty minutes or so the granules explode, expanding to four times their original size. This increases the density of the blocks being formed but also releases the corks natural resin which acts as a binding agent, effectively gluing the granules together. When the autoclave is opened it reveals two perfectly formed bales of dark brown cork, burning embers twinkling and still steaming. They are automatically pushed out of the forming chamber onto a trolly system which transfers them to the next area to be cooled, cut, finished and packed.

As we were making our way through the facility we had been shown a giant furnace; loaded with scrap cork it burns at about 900 degrees celsius. Not only does this furnace provide heat to produce steam for the autoclaves, it also accounts for approximately 90% of the processing centres power generation. The cork it burns has absorbed so much Carbon Dioxide over the course of its life that burning it doesn’t actually emit any new Carbon into the atmosphere. This is typical of the ingenuity of the cork production process, the material is so precious as an export that they daren’t waste a grain.

At AJOTO we care deeply about using materials appropriately and not frivolously. Seeing the source of a material and meeting the people who put so much effort into extracting and processing it only heightened our sense of responsibility. It is crucial to us that the items we create last a long time, if for no other reason than as a testament to the amount of effort at every level that goes into producing them.