(Welcome again to Jonathan, one of the finalists in our Editor search for the upcoming Apartment Therapy Green blog. He's writing from Portland, Oregon. Comment away!)
If you're sometimes a bit of a klutz — or you throw what my mother euphemistically refers to as "very successful dinner parties" — cork's resilience is your best friend, because it just springs back when you drop something heavy on it. The bounce makes it comfortable, too: a friend of mine who swing dances pines for a cork floor of her own.
Cork trees grow only in Portugal and Spain, where they are protected by law. Every 10 years or so, workers remove some of the bark from a cork tree and let it dry in the sun; the tree then grows new bark to complete the cycle. Bottle corks are punched out of the best strips, and the Swiss cheese leftovers are ground (if cork were paper it would be called "pre-consumer recycling") to make products like shoe insoles and flooring.
A substance in cork called suberin gives bounce and antibacterial qualities. I've been told, but cannot yet confirm, that when heat and pressure are applied, suberin binds the ground cork together without any added adhesive, helping to make cork one of the few no-compromise green materials.
AT readers with a degree in chemistry or superior Googling ability: please help sort this out!