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.