A hard-to-recycle item because they don't fit into any single-stream recycling category, wine corks have wide reuse potential and are actually compostable if creativity or collecting things isn't your strong point. Harvested sustainably mostly in the Mediterranean region (but can be found in Maryland!), corks come from the bark of cork oak trees, which can be harvested every 9 years, live up to 200 years, and are an important part of carbon sequestration in their region (ReCORK). It is estimated that 13 billion corks are manufactured and sold annually (ReCORK), so it is important that we divert this biodegradable and useful material from entering the landfill. Start collecting your corks, and when you have the right amount, try one of the options below.
The easiest way to get rid of corks is to find a friend who likes to pursue some of the artistic activities in this article. Otherwise, you could send them to ReCORK, run by Amorim, one of the largest producers of cork wine closures. They've partnered with SOLE, a leading footwear manufacturer, to grind corks they receive into, most notably, sandals, but also gets mixed in unique blends developed by SOLE to produce all types of shoes and comfy footpads. SOLE claims to have distribution with REI and Zappos, as well as with numerous professional sports teams, and claim their cork material products will hit stores in Spring 2010. Unfortunately, you have to pay to ship your corks unless you have a minimum of 15 lbs., in which case they will send you a prepaid mailing label. You could partner with other wine-loving friends to accomplish this, or you may be lucky to find one of their public collection partners in your area, like a winery or restaurant or alternative recycling center.
If you're ambitious and possess the technical know-how, in which case you probably wouldn't need to read this, you could create your own boat out of wine corks! Since corks naturally float, someone with engineering skills and dreams like former White House speechwriter John Pollack can create an amphibious vessel for an old school voyage down a cherished waterway, like the Douro River in Portugal, which Pollack successfully navigated and wrote a book about. If, like most of us, you find yourself less inclined to attempt such a journey, the buoyant qualities of cork also allow other nautical accessories to be created. Try fastening one or two to a key chain or sunglasses strap (I believe the official word is crockers) so they'll float if you or your boat gets sacked by a particularly tremendous wave.
Another brilliant, engineering feat accomplished with cork reuse, but with grander implications than Pollack's boat, is Corky, a battery-less mouse that runs on the continuous motion of ones hand, similar to windable flashlights. Created by Adele Peters for the Greener Gadgets convention going down this week in New York City, it is unclear when such a magnificent product will hit stores, and whether its positive response will garner revamping efforts in offices across the world.
I guess you could say my personal interest with corks (other than drinking wine, obviously, although I've had my share of corkless wines) began when my dad started collecting them to create trivets/hot pads with wooden frames for gifts. This activity requires some woodworking experience and/or equipment. Simply measure the size of several rows of corks, depending on your preference or design you can arrange in a similar design to this picture (alternating horizontal and vertical like the center gives the plate more frictional support), and then cut a flat wood piece (stained/treated wood provides aesthetic enhancement) that will allow all the corks to fit. Use wood glue to make the corks stick, and four side pieces are optional to frame the hot plate. Let the piece dry and then try it out with your favorite dish!
Other reuse options include running dull razors through a cork to get a few more uses out of it, creating your own cork board for posting notes and other things, cutting a slit in the top of a cork to hold recipes, slicing into thin circles and gluing to chair/table legs to prevent wood floor degradation, making coasters, picture frames, glass-covered coffee tables, igloo lanterns?, candle bases, wreaths, holders on fishing hats, hanging fly-swatters on hiking hats, flooring, the list goes on. The internet abounds with helpful hints on any of these activities, but you can also let your own creative synergies guide you.
With all these options for corks, there should be no reason to throw them in the trash. In compost, cork acts like wood chips, aerating the pile and breaking down over several compost cycles (Dan Matsch). If a reuse or recycling option can't be achieved, go ahead and throw your corks in that compost pile. Remember that wine bottles also have reuse potential in the home/garden, as either hanging scarecrow glass to shoo away birds and other critters, or as fruit-fly traps. If you keep a little wine (I hear fruit flies prefer red) or vinegar in the bottom of a bottle, and keep the bottle near the center of fruit fly activity, like a kitchen sink, fruit flies will be naturally attracted to the liquid and usually end up over-indulging, getting stuck or drowning, leaving them, indubitably, worse off than someone with a wine hangover.