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A Guide to Reusing and Upcycling Jars, Plastic Containers & Other Food Packaging

Guest Post by Shannon Bergstrom

We all love food, and try our hardest to make sure it doesn’t go to waste. But while we’re beginning to put a dent in the 80 billion pounds of food wasted in America every year, we’re still left with all the glass jars, plastic tubs, metal cans, and paper that modern food inevitably arrives in.

In an ideal world packaging amounts would be minimized on the products we buy, and recycling is of course something every household should be doing, but what about maximizing the resources we have before relegating them to the bin? 

There’s plenty of untapped potential in our waste, and reusing what you can wherever you can is a great way to keep stuff out of landfill—plus, it can have some surprising and exciting results. So, to help you make the most of ALL that waste, here are some essential tips to reuse and upcycle empty food containers and packaging.

First……Is it Safe to Reuse Empty Containers with Food?

If you’re upcycling empty containers for crafting, storage, or anything not related to food, in general you don’t have to worry so much. But if you want to use your empty containers with more food or beverages, there are a few guidelines you should follow.

The first things to know is that not every container can be reused to store food. Glass jars are the safest container, because glass is easy to clean and sterilize, inert, and non-porous. While you probably wouldn’t want to put food back into them, metal cans can easily corrode and should be avoided. Then there’s plastic. While some are safe to reuse, others can leech out harmful chemicals that may contaminate food. 

So which plastics are harmful and which are ok? To find out what kind of plastic a container is made from, look at the recycling number on the bottom, identifiable by the three arrows surrounding it. One of the most common plastics you’ll find is #1, PET, which is often used for drinks containers like soda and juice bottles. 

This type of plastic is difficult to clean and sterilize properly, and can harbor bacterial growth, so it shouldn’t be reused with food. Then there are #3 and #6, often used in foil wrapping and in styrofoam, respectively. They can leach carcinogens and other cancer-causing toxins into food over the course of their lifetimes. 

This leaves plastics #2, #4 and #5, which are safest to use and reuse with food, but they should not be placed in the microwave. Finally, no matter if your containers are fancy Tupperware or once had yogurt in them, you should stop using all plastics with food once they’re scratched, have warped or become discolored.

How to Clean Empty Food Containers

One of the biggest hurdles to reusing food containers is actually by cleaning them. It can be difficult to get food residue and smells out, and then there’s the dreaded labels on glass jars…

For persistent labels and sticky residue that doesn’t come off glass with a good soaking in warm soapy water, we recommend mixing any kind of cooking oil and baking soda into a paste and applying it to the jar. Wait 20-30 minutes for the oil to do its magic, then use something hard like an abrasive sponge or old credit card to scrape any paper and glue residue off. Wash well with soap and warm water and you’re done!

To get smells out of plastic containers and the metal lids of glass jars, fill them with a mixture of water and white vinegar and let them sit overnight, then rinse well with soap and warm water. The smell of vinegar should dissipate after not too long, and your containers will be odor free. Another option to place them in direct sunlight for a day and let them air out. The sun’s UV rays work to kill the bacteria that perpetuate those funky food smells. 

Reusing and Upcycling Food Containers

Your imagination is the only limit in reusing and upcycling empty containers, but here are some popular ideas to get you started.

Glass jars

The Holy Grail of containers, glass jars are incredibly versatile and can be used for everything from storage in the fridge to reusable glasses at a picnic. They’re easy to sanitize, so if you’re into making your own sauces, pickles or jams, they can also be used in place of expensive mason jars. If the lids ever become moldy or rusty, however, it’s time to recycle them.

For green thumbs, how about constructing a greenhouse with glass jars? Or a mini terrarium inside one? 

Plastic containers

Yogurt containers, butter tubs, and even those fancy containers that your takeout comes in can be cleaned and repurposed as storage containers, just check the numbers beforehand if you want to use them with food. Opaque empty containers with lids can also be transformed into secret hiding places to stash things away from thieves or your kids, whoever is a bigger threat.

Egg cartons

Cardboard cartons have loads of life left in them after the eggs are gone, literally. They’re perfect to start plant seedlings by adding soil and seeds, and when the seedlings have sprouted and are ready to replant, you can place them directly into the soil and the carton will gradually decompose and turn into soil. This type of egg carton can also be cut up and used as kindling when you want to start up your grill. 

While it’s best to avoid Styrofoam egg cartons, they can be reused for holding small objects while sewing, crafting or tinkering, or upcycled into crafting materials themselves. And if you’re lucky enough to be able to buy eggs individually where you live, you can of course reuse both paper and Styrofoam egg cartons to carry more eggs. 

Soda bottles

PET soda bottles have a unique shape that open them up to an innovative variety of uses around the house. Cut off the bottom and remove the cap to make a funnel in a pinch. Or use a nail to carefully poke a hole in the cap, fill the bottle with water, then bury it cap-down next to plants to water them while you’re away. They can also be transformed into flower pots and planters, and a must-have when crafting with kids.

Until compostable packaging becomes the norm, there’s plenty of material out there to experiment with. If you’ve still got more packaging than you know what to do with, don’t forget to ask around at schools and elsewhere in your community to see if anyone has a project where they need more materials. Happy upcycling!

 

About Shannon Bergstrom 

 

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED-accredited, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.

 

 

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