The journey to zero waste can be a confusing one. Many people start their journey, as we did, having decided to reduce their consumption of plastic, which gets a pretty bad press. Once you’ve made the decision to cut down on plastic packaging, you start casting your eye around at other packaging, the main options being paper/cardboard, fabric, metal and glass. If you don’t have a handy refill shop nearby where you can stock up on all your usual essentials in your own bags and containers, this is the moment when shopping shifts from your previous ‘sling all the stuff I usually buy into a trolley’ visit to a mind-boggling array of decisions. Are chopped tomatoes in a tin more environmentally friendly than passata in a glass jar? Should I buy plant milk in a Tetrapak carton or have cow’s milk delivered in a glass bottle? Is it better to buy dried chickpeas in a plastic bag or ready-to-use chickpeas in a tin? Online zero waste groups are full of such questions and there is no easy way to answer them.
It all boils down to how much energy is used to create the packaging and what can be done with it once we’re finished with it. One of the reasons single-use plastics became so popular is because less energy is used to produce it than other materials. I’ve mentioned before that a cloth shopping bag requires a lot more energy to produce than a plastic carrier bag and is only more environmentally friendly than plastic if it is used at least 150 times. Unfortunately, the problem with single-use plastic is that it can only be used once (the clue is in the name!) and if it is recycled, it can only be downcycled. It can never be as good as it once was.
Currently, County Durham Council are running a Make Your Metals Matter campaign to encourage people to recycle metal. They will take clean food and drink cans, foil trays, empty aerosols, aluminium foil, biscuit and sweet tins. At the moment, the average household only recycles half of the metals that they could. If every household in County Durham recycled all their metals, it is estimated that 7,773 tons of carbon dioxide would be saved.
“Used metal packaging can be recycled into new products at a far lower cost to the environment than making them from raw materials. Making cans from recycled material saves up to 95 per cent of the energy, and greenhouse gas emissions, needed to make both aluminium and steel from scratch.”
I was really pleased when someone in a zero waste group started a discussion about glass vs plastic the other day, especially because they had a source to back up their thoughts. According to the Verde article, “glass beverage bottles cause the most environmental damage, including global warming”, so it’s not looking great for glass. However, there is hope:
“Up to 80% of recycled glass can be reclaimed, and recycled glass uses 40% less energy than manufacturing new glass… Reusing a glass bottle three times lowers its carbon footprint roughly to that of a single-use plastic beverage bottle. If the plastic bottle gets recycled, however, then the glass bottle must be reused 20 times to make their carbon footprint comparable.”
As single-use items, glass and metal containers are an environmental disaster zone. However, their recyclability and reusability stand in their favour when compared to plastic containers. We just need to get the message across that recycling and reusing these items is essential. If we look at the waste hierarchy, reuse comes before recycle. So, focusing on reusing our packaging, it’s easy to see that a glass jar is the more versatile option. With this in mind, here are my top 10 ways to reuse a glass jar:
- Store leftover or cook-ahead food in your freezer. ‘What?’ I hear you say, ‘Freeze food in glass? That’s a recipe for disaster, surely?’ Actually, it’s perfectly possible to use glass storage in the freezer without it shattering. There are just two really important things to remember. Firstly, liquids expand as they freeze, so leave room for the contents to expand. Secondly, don’t put the lid on until the contents have frozen.
- Store prepped-ahead food or leftovers in your fridge. Glass jars are a really useful way to store food in your fridge, because you can see the contents really easily. Prep ahead for tonight’s tea and store your chopped vegetables in glass jars. You can cover with water if necessary. Have a couple of potatoes leftover after tea time? Or a bit of gravy that didn’t get used? Stick them in jars to use up later.
- Store cleaning supplies. If you’d like to have a go at making your own cleaning supplies, glass jars a great way to store them.
- Store dry food. If you’re lucky enough to have a refill store nearby, you can take your glass jars along to reuse as storage for your groceries. If you don’t have a refill store nearby, you can use an online store like Plastic Free Pantry, who will send your produce in compostable cellulose packaging or brown paper bags. You can then decant these into your own jars at home.
- Use as a container for your lunch. When I need a packed lunch to take out with me, I love making up a little salad portion in a jar. Some sliced fresh tomatoes, a bit of raw fennel, pinch of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Delicious! You could also fill a jar with pasta salad or tabbouleh. There are loads of other ideas here.
- Make your own preserves. I love making jam. It’s a really good way to use up excess fruit to save it from going to waste and it’s another way to reuse your glass jars.
- Store your toiletries. Moving out of the kitchen to the bathroom, if you have a go at making your own toiletries, you’re going to need something to store them in and a glass jar is perfect. Homemade deodorant can be mixed up and stored in a jar (wide mouth is best). You can also use them for storing homemade make up wipes, soap and shampoo bars and as a toothbrush holder. When travelling, you can decant toiletries into small jars. Jars also great for hair bobbles, hair slides and hair grips. You’ll never be scrabbling down the sofa cushions for a hair bobble on a school morning ever again!
- Sorting and storing around the home. Do you have a hobby that uses lots of little pieces of equipment or material, such as sewing, jewellery making or electronics? Glass jars are the perfect storage solution, because you can see what’s in them at a glance. Arranged on a shelf they look aesthetically pleasing as well. If you have children with a love for all things tiny, jars are great for sorting their toys too. Sylvanian Family accessories, doll’s shoes, really really really special pieces of Lego can all be popped into jars for easy storage and safe keeping. Tall jars minus their lids are great for storing paintbrushes, pens, pencils, utensils or knitting needles in.
- Gifts. With Christmas approaching, it’s time to start thinking about how we can reduce the impact of our festive gift-giving on the environment. A great zero waste gift can be home-baked treats, which look lovely packaged in a glass jar. Or you can buy sweets from an old-fashioned sweet shop in a paper bag and gift them in a jar with a pretty ribbon tied round it. You can also reuse jars to gift hobby kits to people, such as the ingredients to make biscuits with the recipe and cookie cutter attached or a sewing kit for the budding seamstress in your family. You can ask the recipient to return the jar to you when they’re done with it or reuse it themselves.
- Random stuff. If your house is anything like ours, there is bound to be random stuff that doesn’t have a home. That screw that looks important but no one knows what it belongs in. One jigsaw piece that will complete a puzzle. A key that no one dares to throw away. Foreign coins from your last holiday. They can all go in a jar until their true calling in life is discovered.
Rehoming spare glass jars is the next step if you really can’t reuse them. You could list them on your local Freecycle, local Facebook groups or ask around your friends. In the past, I’ve donated mine to one of my neighbours who is a member of the WI to be used during jam-making season. Similarly, when I was rearranging our spices and herbs and ran out of small glass jars, I put a message out on Facebook and received a few donations from friends.
I think a different mindset is the key to tackling our local, national and international waste problems. A move away from our throwaway society towards a place where we consider reusing something as many times as possible before rehoming or recycling it. And, of course, the bottom line is to consume less in the first place.
What’s your favourite way to reuse your glass jars? Let me know in the comments below.