Cork is an unconventional yet attractive, durable, and sustainable alternative to more common countertops. Comparable to wood and bamboo in terms of aesthetics, workability, and material cost, it outperforms these materials in several ways. Cork is better at withstanding moisture and repelling microbes, and it has a superior ability to resist heat damage and surface scratching.
Harvested cyclically from the bark of the cork oak, cork's role in nature is to protect the tree trunk from the elements: fire, water, microbes, pests, mold, and fungus. Its inherent resistance to moisture and decay makes it suitable for wet areas such as next to a sink. Its heat resistance makes it less vulnerable to hot pots and pans; however, surface scorching can still occur, so it is best to always use a hot-pad of some sort. Cork's fire resistance makes it a very safe interior material in fire-prone areas such as a kitchen (if it does burn, no toxic gases are emitted). And finally, cork's self-healing properties make it more forgiving of scratches and cuts than wood or bamboo. Gouging is possible, but not likely to occur under normal wear and tear. If the surface does become noticeably damaged, holes can be filled with a wood-filler such as Famowood and the surface sanded smooth.
Because it is very porous, cork will stain (though less so than wood or bamboo). I recommend treating the surface with a food-safe finish such as carnauba wax, mineral oil, or beeswax. You might try the natural finishes offered by PaperStone or EcoTop. This will not only add a layer of protection but also enhance the natural colors and provide an attractive sheen.
An important concern with relatively soft and porous countertop materials is the potential harboring of microbial colonies, which can contaminate food and lead to illness. Surface scratches and abrasions can add to this problem. Cork has an advantage over other wood products in this regard because it resists wear and has natural antimicrobial properties. Nevertheless, frequent and thorough cleaning of the surface with an apple-cider vinegar solution, especially when preparing meat dishes, is highly recommended.
Cork has a number of other practical advantages. Its resiliency will give the occasional tipped wineglass or dropped piece of china a better chance of survival, and protruding edges and corners will be less of a hazard to toddlers. Those with allergies will be pleased to know that it is hypoallergenic.
The cork countertop product currently on the market is made of 100-percent postindustrial waste: scrap material from the manufacture of other cork products is ground up and compressed into solid blocks that are then sliced into the slabs that make up the countertop. The result is a material that retains all the properties discussed above, with a density much greater than that of other cork products such as flooring, wall-covering, and tackboard. (The product has a higher density than even some species of wood.) The material is made by Amorim and can be ordered through EcoHome Improvement in Berkeley, California (tel. 510-644-3500) and shipped anywhere in the country. It may soon be available on the East Coast at ECO Supply Center in Richmond, Virginia (contact Greg at 804-414-1884).
Aesthetically pleasing, durable, safe, environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and easy to install and maintain, cork counters are a unique alternative to conventional countertop options.