Even the lowly used cork can be a contender in the collective green consciousness.

Even the lowly used cork can be a contributor to the green movement.

For two years, the Ashland Food Co-op has partnered with Cowhorn Vineyard and Corvallis-based Western Pulp to convert used corks into reusable, compostable wine packing trays.

The result is a collaboration between two local green powerhouses — Southern Oregon's first and only certified organic retailer and its first and only certified biodynamic winery.

Cowhorn is one of 350 to 400 vineyards nationwide with the biodynamic certification, which according to Cowhorn co-owner Bill Steele is a holistic approach to farming started in Europe following World War I.

"The goal is to eliminate synthetic chemicals on the property," said Steele. "It is a closed-loop system, so it's like we have created our own self-supporting environment."

Steele said the co-op and the vineyard recycled more than 400 pounds of all-natural cork last year. The average cork weighs only 2 grams — it would take about 14 corks to make up an ounce.

The amount of corks passing through the co-op amazes Kelly McNamara, the co-op's specialties manager.

"It's incredible how many corks come in," said McNamara. "Are these people really drinking this much wine, and if they are, I need to know them!"

McNamara said different people bring in various amounts during the week, ranging from a handful to a large burlap sack. The collection spot is a large pickle barrel in the kiosk at the end of the wine aisle. She said the average amount of corks sent in for recycling is three to four wine cases worth a week. Synthetic corks are not accepted.

McNamara said the co-op appreciates the importance of cork and supports the idea of using natural cork in the wine industry.

"Cork is sustainable," she said. "There are cork tree forests in the Mediterranean, which grow back after it is harvested. It is a renewable resource.

"If the cork disappears, the habitat will disappear and the land will be put to another use. There are so many layers to the story."

McNamara said natural cork has gotten bad rap in some circles in the wine industry. The estimated percentage of bottles ruined by bad corks, known as a 'corked bottle,' varies widely — anywhere from 1 percent to 15 percent. While McNamara understands how switching to synthetic cork may make business sense in the short term, she believes the elimination of natural cork will have a negative environmental impact.

Steele said the Cowhorn winery is committed to recycling everything possible, which led to the cork recycling program.

"We are committed to full-out recycling, and because cork is 100 percent natural, we knew we could recycle it," said Steele. "We did our research, made a few calls, and found Western Pulp in Corvallis. We approached the co-op because they have always been supportive of Cowhorn."

In order to keep the use of cork flowing, Steele is inviting everyone to drop off their old corks to either the co-op or the winery, 1665 Eastside Road, off of Upper Applegate Road, south of Ruch. He is also asking the local vineyards to bring their recycled corks.

"I have a feeling I'll be getting in a lot of corks now," McNamara said.

For more information, visit the Ashland Food Co-op at 237 N. First Street, or call Cowhorn Vineyard at 541-899-6876.

F.B. Drake III is a freelance writer. He can be reached at drakerusty@gmail.com.