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Glass jars, reusing, recycling, and getting off the goo: an urbanMamas green thing

Olivia posted on Facebook a few weeks ago about jars -- what do you do? Reuse, recycle, avoid? Now that we're trying to keep as many plastics out of our lives as possible, buying food and other grocery items in glass seems like a great option. But oh! That can be a lot of glass.

I've spent a lot more time considering the life cycle of my food packaging than is probably healthy, and after being a sanctimonious recycler for decades, I have finally clued in to what someone on the Shift To Bikes email list this morning called "first order" solutions -- reduce, reuse -- rather than hanging on to the "second order" solution of recycling. (If you're interested, he called truly walkable neighborhoods "first order" solutions with bicycling for transport, second.) I bought some hazelnut butter in a glass jar from People's, on which was stated that reusing the jar by returning it for deposit used 10% of the energy used by recycling a glass jar. I started to think, what if I reuse jars myself? That's got to use even less than 10%, given that the sum total of the energy required is enough to wash it. Which I would have done before sending it to the recycling bin, anyway.

News of the cycle of plastic recycling is even worse; most of America's recycling is shipped to China, where it's processed using techniques that, while not guaranteed to be evil, are certainly far less strictly regulated than those in the U.S. Once done, it's manufactured again into products that we can once again buy, very cheaply, shipped back to us on huge boats. Stories of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch point to both the dumping of trash on beaches and in waterways and the (?) accidental loss of things on their way across the Pacific Ocean. To China and back, or maybe, just straight into the middle of the ocean.

Then there's the oil spill, which only makes everything seem more painful.

After lots of research, I came to a number: 4.6%. That's how much of the U.S.'s oil consumption goes to the manufacture (for feedstock and power for the plants) of plastic. It stands to reason that far more than this is used in China and other countries that manufacture and recycle much of our plastic consumption. Even the U.S. number is something like 10 or more times what's been leaked into the Gulf of Mexico; it's more than the sum total of all deepwater oil drilling in U.S. waters (which is less than 5% of our total consumption -- deepwater oil drilling had been projected to rise to a little less than 10% of our total consumption by 2030). In other words, if we could all reduce our plastic consumption by even 50%, we'd need no deepwater drilling and would make a huge dent in our consumption of worldwide oil resources. If we could reduce it by 90%... it's a start.

So I've cut back over the past few years, slowly getting to the point where my recycling bin holds mostly newspaper, the odd cardboard packaging I can't seem to forego (I can't resist my kids' desire for pretty new Lego sets when I have enough money for 'em), and the large quantity of newsletters, newspapers, junk mail and (oh my goodness) privacy statements I seem to get no matter what. There are a precious few plastic bottles that end up in our lives despite my better judgment; and there are a few wine bottles and kombucha bottles every few months that I don't have a re-use for.

In order to re-use, however, there's that nasty business of getting off the label. If I'd hazard a guess, I'd say that my sum total of bottle-scrubbing might add up even to days over the past few years. Until, that is, I happened upon a magic solution: half baking soda, half salt (you could use any salt but my good results have been with the 99 cent packages of sea salt from Trader Joe's). I mix a little jar of the stuff and set it on my window sill; when I've given a label a good preliminary hot-water rinse and cursory scrubby, I shake off the water and sprinkle on a layer of soda/salt. Using a damp-not-dripping scrubby, I work that into a paste. Usually, the label and all the stickiness is off in less than a minute.

This cleaning tactic works on other stuff, too; the grime on my sink, the burnt stuff in the bottom of my stainless steel pots, etc. But the jar magic is the kind I was waiting for; now I'm free to use my jars without goo to refill with maple syrup, flour, leftovers, new jam, pickles, seeds I've collected, snacks for the road, a bunch of flowers, a solution of liquor and rhubarb headed toward liqueur greatness, a potato salad for a potluck... you get the picture. Jars stay out of the recycling stream; I don't need to buy new containers; and I can stick fun labels on them without fear.


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We've just been discussing this in our house for the exact same reasons. People's has Biokleen in big drums for bulk purchase. I asked if I could bring in my Biokleen containers and use them for the bulk purchase and they said yes. Pretty awesome.

THANK YOU! I hate the stickey stuff on my jars I am saving.... Will make paste shortly! :)

I love jars. A nice large one with a wide mouth is perfect for transporting my meals to and from work, or for storing sugar/coffee on my countertop. They are perfect for mixing up my salad dressings and sauces, perhaps even for making yoghurt one day (when I get around to it. creme fraiche was perfectly made in an old bonne maman jelly jar).

My biggest issue is that I've never learned the art of pickling, etc. So, once we've saved enough glass for storage containers or to use a drinking glasses, we don't really have use for the rest. Maybe a community solution could be group sessions on preserving. That way, all of us (and I assume we are many) who weren't taught this growing up, would be buying less and throwing away less.

I like jars, too. My favorites are the apple sauce jars from Trader Joe (the labels come right off with water). I have shelves filled with beans, popcorn, rice, couscous, orzo, and all kinds of stuff in those jars. It's surprising how much they hold. They are also great in the snack shelf for nuts - especially with the summer ants who seem to find a way inside any plastic packaging.

And don't forget, glass jars filled with goods are sooo pretty!

Sarapdx, if you don't find a group session on preserving, look for the Ball Blue Book on Preserving. It breaks everything down step by step. And it's actually really easy! I learned on my own in one long afternoon. And pickling is even easier, if you go the refrigerator (versus boiling to process) route.

Question. When your reusing a jar that isn't a canning jar what do you do about the lids? My spaghetti sauce jars always make everything smell because of the lids.... I <3 the peanut jars. Once I have stock piled enough of those, we will buy them in bulk. :)

Mama Ceri: I do sometimes find a lid can overwhelm me with its unfortunate scents (tho most of the things I buy already jarred are mildly scented now :). you could try a really good baking soda/salt scrub! failing that, use the jars for dry things that won't pick up too much scent, like dry beans, little toys, and the like.

sarapdx: I dearly want to host community group canning sessions. I've been trying to devise a way to plan them without making it out of control. on the past few wednesdays, I've been having a few mamas over for strawberry jam-making, which has admittedly been a little chaotic. (jam gets made; I haven't taught much to anyone :) you're certainly welcome to come, and I'll try to get to the place where I can coordinate something more formal.

for now, there's this: http://www.culinate.com/user/cafemama/recipes/summer/strawberry_honey_lemon_vanilla_jam a very detailed recipe and process for what I made last week! it was delicious.

We also save jars as we go and use them for storage, food transport, etc. I have a bunch out on the counter with various nuts and dried fruit in them for when the munchies hit.

Along these lines, where are your favorite places to go to get bulk items? For dry items (flour, beans) we go to Bob's Red Mill (at the same time we go to Dave's Killer Bread across the street for the day old deals). And there is New Seasons, Whole Foods, Alberta Co-op, Fred Meyer bulk bins. What are your favorite places?

Sarah, I am making your strawberry jam.. just mixed it up and it is yummy! Can't wait for the finished product :-)

Ana, my favorite place to go for almost everything in bulk is People's Co-op. I haven't shopped the bulk aisles at Alberta, so I can't compare, but people's is cheaper, fresher, and better options than BRM (though I only went there once, I had a very bad experience with stale hazelnuts and a few other things that were more expensive than people's). plus, people's has way more organic and local options. and there's always the option of truly buying in bulk -- you get a 10% discount on special-ordered bulk stuff (like flour).

the bulk aisles at fred meyer (at least the one on 39th/hawthorne) are pretty good, too, and I've bought a few things at new seasons.

I get beans (red beans and garbanzos) from Jim at www.realgoodfood.com -- he's awesome and those are the best, freshest dry beans in town. also, lots of people order bulk from hummingbird through buying clubs; in southeast we have the awesome www.knowthyfood.com and it's pretty easy to get a few people to go in on a 2.5 gallon bottle of maple syrup, or whatever :)

You can also use essential oil of orange to get the sticky residue off. Just a drop, and a dry cloth work great.
Those citrus-eliminate-odors-naturally-room-freshener-sprays work well too. First wash and peel. Then spritz and wipe.

I'll be teaching food preservation classes later this summer, which will include canning, drying, freezing, fermenting, etc. Visit my web site and sign up for my newsletter for schedule updates.

Thanks so much for the goo-cleaning recipe, Sarah! I happen to love those Hummingbird pint jars--unlike most canning jars, they don't have anything imprinted on the glass, which appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities--but the glue they use for their labels is particularly tough to remove.

I make my own nut butters (usually with roasted hazelnuts from Freddy Guys, purchased in bulk thru our buying club) and prefer using the straight-sided wide-mouth pint canning jars for that and other scoopable/spreadable concoctions (mayo, ghee, lard). I find it's easier to get everything out as there is no shoulder for stuff to get hung up on inside the jar.

Another thing I like about canning jars for storing leftovers is that they have a smaller footprint than most of the conventional storage containers, so they take up less shelf space in the fridge.

I bought some hazelnut butter in a glass jar from People's, on which was stated that reusing the jar by returning it for deposit used 10% of the energy used by recycling a glass jar.

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