Why We Need to Stop Throwing Away Empty Jars (and the Best Ways to Upcycle Them)

Every year, the US produces around 268 million tons of waste. It generates more waste than any other country in the world, but it’s not a title to be proud of. Most waste goes to landfill or gets incinerated, both of which are incredibly pollutive and environmentally damaging waste management solutions.

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Some states are trying to make progress on the issue. In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed off on changes to a bottle recycling law, which aims to reduce the amount of plastic and glass headed to landfills.

The issue of waste management relies on legal and corporate intervention. But, that said, there are small things that individuals can do to reduce waste at home. Upcycling, for example, is a fun and easy way to keep some items from ending up in the trash for longer. And if you’re looking to get in on making the most out of simple items, we suggest starting with empty jars.

Why we need to stop throwing away empty jars

Glass jars and bottles are easy to recycle, but only if the infrastructure to recycle them is in place. According to one report released in 2023, glass in Massachusetts and other northeastern states is used in landfills and construction projects. This is largely because they rely on single-stream recycling systems, where the glass is mixed in with other recyclables so it becomes dirty and is no longer suitable for recycling.

This problem has been rumbling on for years. In 2019, an article in Chemical & Engineering News, titled “Why glass recycling in the US is broken,” reported that while Americans dispose of 10 million metric tons of glass every year, only around one-third of that actually gets recycled. 

Upcycling an empty glass jar into a pencil holder isn’t going to fix this problem, but it will cut down on the amount of glass waste your household produces. And it’ll make you feel good, too, especially if you make the process fun and creative. So, if you want to repurpose your empty jars (and you should!), here are seven ways to get started.

7 ways to repurpose those empty glass jars

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1 Use them as extra kitchen containers

With air-tight seals, jars keep food items fresh, making them ideal for pantry staples. Larger jars can become a new home for dried macaroni, for example, or you can fill them up with cocoa, rice, or quinoa (extra points if you head to a plastic-free store to top them up!). You could also turn them into a treat jar, and fill them up with your favorite candy, popcorn, or cookies (Kardashian style). You can even design your own labels, too, if you feel like getting crafty.

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2 Organize your desk

You don’t have to use extra jars are kitchen storage at all. Once you’ve cleaned them out, they make for great desk organizers and can become a new home for pens, pencils, paper clips, mini post-it notes, and anything else you like to keep on hand in your WFH office. Plus they’ll save you money on extra stationary pots and trays, too. If you’re arty, you can also use them to store your paint supplies, too.

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3 Pack salads into them

We love Tupperware, but if you’re go-to containers are otherwise engaged (for example, keeping all of your leftovers fresh in the fridge), an empty jar makes a great container for an on-the-go salad. Fill it like this: dressing first, followed by your favorite salad vegetables, and then ingredients like rice and vegan cheese. When you get to the office, or wherever you’re having lunch, grab a bowl and tip the jar upside down. That’s it! Your yummy lunch awaits. 

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4 Make your own jams or chutneys

If you love to get creative in the kitchen, keep your old empty jars on hand to store things like homemade jams and chutneys (we love this recipe for Vegan Bourbon Bacon Jam, for example!). They double as great holiday or birthday gifts for friends and family, especially if you spend some time making cute label designs.

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5 Get pickling

Pickling is easy to do at home, especially when you have plenty of empty jars handy. Simply fill them up with your favorite vegetables, anything from classic cucumbers to carrots or beets, before adding brine, spices, and herbs, and then leave them to ferment for several weeks. The result is a gut-healthy, deliciously tangy ingredient to cook with. For more on the benefits of fermented food and pickling, find our guide here. 

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6 Build a terrarium

Terrariums are a great, low-maintenance way to bring a little bit of nature into your home, and they’re easy to make, too, especially if you have a large empty jar on hand. It’s important to start with a layer of small rocks for drainage, before adding layers of activated charcoal and potting soil. After that, add in small plants, like succulents and moss, and arrange them in the soil, before sealing it shut with the lid. Congratulations, you’ve created a mini ecosystem! For more on how to create and maintain a terrarium in an empty jar, follow this guide from Kew Gardens.

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7 Upcycle them into cocktail glasses

A quirky, fun way to upcycle old empty jars is to use them as cocktail glasses. They’re fun to sip from, but because they come with a lid, they also double up as shakers, too. Simply pour in all of your ingredients, scoop in some ice, screw on the lid, and have fun shaking it around. Next, remove the lid, pop in a straw, and you’re ready to go. Find some of our favorite vegan cocktail and mocktail recipes here!

For more on recycling, read: