Simple Stuff: A new series devoted to talking about the stuff that might prove useful or helpful or otherwise necessary while making a home in a small apartment or anywhere. Its aim is to provide a bit of inspiration for simplifying your space sustainably and stylishly. Its contention is that what’s useful can be beautiful, and that you might already have everything you need.
This is a post about bottles and caps and some of the ways that they might be acquired and made useful. But it’s also about raiding your recycling bin in an effort to stop filling it so much. Here’s to conscious consumption in the name of less waste, less clutter, and more beauty.
In our house, we try to make a good faith effort at reducing waste by limiting what we buy in single-use bottles and refilling bottles when we can. With a bit of effort, it’s been possible for us to find local places to refill things like maple syrup and olive oil and dish soap. With a tiny bit more know-how we’ve been able to make things like our own multi-purpose cleaner and linen spray. When I can’t find a bulk replacement for an item or make it myself, I sometimes decant products into plain-jane bottles in the name of visual simplicity. It’s nice for a home to be a little sanctuary from the competing designs of a million logos and labels.
Of course, this is the part when I need to admit that my obsession with the art of label-removal is…particular. Not everyone is bothered by the purple and green flash of their prenatal vitamin bottle when they open the kitchen cabinet. Some people don’t mind a bottle of branded dish soap on their counter. There exist, I’m told, fellow humans who did not squeal with delight on the day they learned that the label on their husband’s contact solution bottle could be simply peeled away, no gummy residue in sight. I am not one of those people.
Also, mine is not a home free of all labels. Enmeshed as I am in the lively daily role as parent, spouse, business owner, and 21st-century human, I can’t always find a source for an item in bulk and I can’t always drum up the enthusiasm to pour my coconut oil into a label-free bottle. And yes, decanting my stash of ibuprofen into an unlabeled glass bottle was perhaps a borderline questionable move. Still, if you’re looking to reduce the number of ugly bottles cluttering your shelves, and hopefully produce less waste in the process, here are a few ideas for where to start:
On finding bottles:
Let me be the first to say that there aren’t many bottles that you need to buy specially for your at-home bottling needs. If you select the bottled products you do buy carefully, you’ll quickly amass a selection of bottles to repurpose. Clear glass, as well as amber and cobalt-blue apothecary bottles make attractive counter-top vessels. Empty vinegar bottles are a favorite repurposed item of mine. Smaller condiment bottles—like the kind that fancy vinegars come in—might prove useful for DIY concoctions of your own. If you absolutely need to buy new, many small natural food stores stock apothecary bottles nearby their selection of essential oils, and, of course the internet can supply them for you in bulk. Examples of things we’ve taken directly out of the recycling bin and put to use? An old glass whiskey bottle for dish soap, a glass vinegar bottle for hand soap, and a gin bottle for keeping water cool in the fridge, plugged up with the reusable cork it came with.
When looking for bottles to repurpose, keep in mind that papery labels like the ones found on a jar of Bonne Maman or a bottle of Lorina lemonade peel away with a simple run through the dishwasher and are far easier to remove than plastic-y waterproof-looking ones. That said, in Simple Matters I mention my favorite DIY label-remover: coconut oil and baking soda. Have at it!
On finding caps:
Wherever you find them, glass bottles with standard 1-inch twist tops are your best friends. The standard size means that most mechanisms built to make your life easier—pumps and spray nozzles and pour spouts—can be repurposed for use on those bottles. So, before you recycle your last bottle of store-bought cleaner, save the plastic spray nozzle (usually not recyclable anyway!) and use it to retrofit another bottle. The hand-pump from the moisturizer you just finished could be added to a glass bottle for a shower-friendly shampoo dispenser. (If the idea of glass in the shower makes you queasy, an attractive solution could be found in a reused plastic bottle. I like the amber-colored plastic squeeze bottles that my favorite shampoo comes in—but the labels aren’t the easiest to remove, you’ve been warned.) A simple pour spout can turn any 1-inch bottle into an olive oil cruet, or, in our case, a soap dispenser.
On refilling bottles:
Whenever it’s possible, the goal is to refill my bottles with products I’ve managed to make myself or purchase in bulk. When an item can’t readily be found in bulk, and if the task is reasonable enough, I’ll decant something I’ve purchased in a large vessel into a label-free bottle. (Pesky prenatal vitamins? Why, yes I will cover the offending label with a bit of kraft paper and washi tape.)
If you’re just getting started on making your own cleaners or potions, you can find some of my go-to recipes in my book. If you’re not sure where to find items in bulk, your local food coop or natural foods store is likely your best place to start (more on this in my book, too). Increasingly, cities also have special zero-waste stores that specialize in carrying items in large quantities so that you can fill up your own reusable container and carry on with your day. In Brooklyn, The Fillery is working on opening its doors but other great places to check for bulk are small Middle-Eastern markets and health food stores. Last week, Brooklyn-based green cleaning company, Common Good, sponsored the Reading My Tea Leaves newsletter, and showcased their current Kickstarter to fund their new bulk cleaning supply refills (complete with their own beautiful reusable bottles).
On labeling bottles:
I prefer to leave jars and bottles unlabeled as much as possible. But if there’s more than one person in your household, I submit, you might want to label your bottles. James will never let me forget the time that he accidentally poured dish soap into a blender full of spring peas he had shelled by hand, thinking it was olive oil and endeavoring to make a festive spring pesto. If you are fearful of such a catastrophe, feel free to label. My sister uses this label maker in her office and has had good luck. I enjoy a good masking tape and black marker label. I’ve also been known to painstakingly use a rubber stamp address label and kraft paper stickers. (Recommended for the very patient and not-at-all-busy only.
For more Simple Stuff, head here.
Do you sterilize the bottles before reusing them for food?
How do you keep track of expiry dates (e.g. once pain medication has been transferred to an unlabeled glass container)?
We usually just run bottles through the dishwasher before using them! The pain medication was admittedly not the wisest decanting project I ever embraced, but you could keep track of expiration dates using a piece of masking tape and pen!
I too have an obsession with label removal. As well as moving items to label-less containers. I use the excuse that because we live in an old house, we have to put the chips and cereal and crackers in jars, because mice.
But I never thought about the idea of our home being a sanctuary from a million logos and advertisements. That’s a rather well-put sentiment.
I do this with things that get left out, like hand soap and olive oil. I guess I’m not as bothered by medication as that’s kept in a big drawer in my kitchen (I need the bathroom cabinet for beauty supplies as I don’t have a dresser to keep stuff on, and those are already pretty). IKEA actually has great little hand soap pumps and olive oil containers–at least they did the last time I was there! And I keep glass jars from other products all the time, too. I drink my water most days out of an old coconut oil jar, our vases once held spaghetti sauce, and an empty green wine bottle can be a lovely place to stick a long candle!
I’ve recently found myself pining for a sugar jar – dinner style. Not only do they have such a timeless look to them, but I think it would simplify the morning tea routine. Love the idea of this post regardless.
I love your aesthetic and can appreciate your love of decanting. My favorite to re-purpose are those fancy water or soda bottles that have the connected pressure stoppers. My weakness is that I amass too many because I’m not saavy at DIY cleaners yet. So I end up with tons of single use glass containers in my hoard. By far my most clever re-purpose is the previously mentioned soda bottles. I fill them with filtered tap water and set them on the table for guests and they think I’m freaking Martha Stewart! I also use jam jars with washi tape labels for my vitamins (why are vitamin bottles so obnoxious?!) I hesitate with Tylenol because my luck there’d be a recall and I’d have mixed 4 bottles. I’m totally stealing the contact solution idea. A tip I learned was orange essential oil to remove labels from plastic and glass! You can also buy specialty lids and nozzles for canning jars when you don’t have an old one to reuse. 🙂
Yup! Those Lorina lemonade bottles are my favorite pressure-top bottles! We used one for years for that very purpose! (Also toted it on picnics!) Yes to orange essential oil!
I too use washi tape for all of my labeling. Sharpies go on without wiping off and the tape comes off without any residue left behind. I stick them on my jars before going to the store to write the tare weight and plu number.
I have been considering purchasing a wax/grease pencil just for the specific purpose of marking up (and easily removing) re-purposed glass containers.
Also – it’s been bothering me lately as of what to do about prescription bottles. We have a few prescriptions that (by law) require that they only be filled once a month. The pills are tiny and it’s rather ridiculous what a waste the packaging causes (you know, those plastic orange guys). Unfortunately, asking a pharmacist to reuse an existing bottle would not be received well (and is probably against regulations). I just can’t figure out what on Earth to do with them… Anyone have any suggestions?
I love that idea! Zero Waste Home has some good thoughts re: medications in this post! Sounds like taking them back to the pharmacy is your best bet, even if they won’t refill them!
I hope that is a thing in my area (taking the bottles back). I tried to imagine how to reuse them but nothing but clutter came to mind!
Pill bottles aren’t pretty but could be used in a junk drawer or similar area to store a few buttons, beads, tacks, clips. They make a fun shaker for babies with a few dry beans inside. Could probably cover the outside and store large bills cash inside and hide too. I suddenly feel like a weirdo.
There used to be a charity that collects the pill bottles to send overseas (I think it is this one, if you don’t mind religious groups or having to remove labels: http://m25m.org/pillbottles/) .
In case it spares you the trouble of asking your pharmacist: they definitely don’t take them back! I’ve asked mine before, and yep I think it’s against the law for them to reuse the bottles.
Yes: Pharmacies are unlikely to be able to reuse the bottles, but some pharmacies *definitely* have take-back programs, so it’s still worth a check.
Here are a few more resources on recycling pharmacy bottles: http://recyclenation.com/2014/08/recycle-medicine-bottles
Any ideas for good sources for spray bottle tops? I like making my own cleaning spray, diaper spray, etc., but I always have bad luck with those plastic spray bottles you can buy at the hardware store. They never work for long for me. I love the idea of using empty glass bottles, but don’t have any functioning sprayers I could use with them!
I’ve only ever used the sprayers repurposed from other spray bottles! I recycle the bottle and keep the sprayer!
I do the same!
I make my own all purpose cleaner with vinegar and tea tree oil and a few weeks ago realized that my nozzle fit perfectly on the Key Foods vinegar bottle. W/o the label it looks so cute.
It is embarrassing how happy this makes me.
I’ve ordered a few bottles and sprayers from this company: https://www.abundanthealth4u.com/White_Trigger_Sprayer_for_8_16_32_oz_Bottles_p/9137f.htm
The price couldn’t be beat, and the quality was OK. I bought an amber glass bottle with a sprayer and it leaks when the bottle’s not upright, but that’s OK — I just try to make sure it doesn’t tip over.
How energizing to know that I’m not the only person who uses the word ‘decant’ on a regular basis (outside the lab). Definitely removing the contact solution labels — I like to add my own little label with a strip of washi tape.
Love this! I’ve been on a jar-repurposing & refilling mission for about a year now. For labeling, I got some black masking tape and a white paint marker; works like a charm. If anyone’s in (lower-ish) Manhattan and looking for a refill-type place, the 4st Street Food Co-Op is my favorite go-to. Lovely place, lovely folks, and kind of a neighborhood institution. 🙂
I live nearby and have been thinking of joining!
It’s so great! Admittedly I’m not a member yet, but you can shop there regardless which is pretty awesome. You just get a discount if you’re a member. Score. 🙂
I use painters tape or a dry erase marker for temporary items (stuff in the fridge and freezer). For longer term items (hello, flavored vodka) I use small waterproof labels, ideally on the bottom. Mine are round and white and sized so they also fit on top of spice container bottles, but next time I would look for clear.
And what use can we give to the flask of bean for baby, its cap to be under pressure can not be reused?
Sorry, Angela! I’m not quite understanding!
This post sings to my soul! I recently emptied two gifted bottles of alcohol into a mason jar and a jam jar because I couldn’t take one more day of looking at their labels! It will be tricky to discern if you are getting rum or vodka for your mixed drink but we can cross that bridge when we come to it! Happy decanting!
Ha! Surely a little sip would do the trick 😉
Great description: “this post sings to my soul”. Mine, too! And my soul also resonates with Erin’s sentence: “It’s nice for a home to be a little sanctuary from the competing designs of a million logos and labels.” OMG – a kindred spirit! I’ve tried to create a place of sanctuary/calm/serenity in our home, “a sanctuary” and one aspect of that is removing logos/labels. [which I’ve felt weird about sharing with many people – lol!] The cacophony of colors used on labels, to attract your attention in a store, is not what I want in my home. We’ve already got plenty of visual noise just in the course of living! I like Weck and Bormioli Rocca jars for storage. They are pricey, but imo, their substantial quality means they really last. I take Weck’s to my Food Co-op, to fill with the bulk product I want, and appreciate the zero waste in that area, at least.
We started buying the milk in glass jars (it’s relatively inexpensive in the Bay Area, since we have Strauss in the North Bay), and although we have gotten to the point where we generally return the bottles to get our $2 deposit back, I have probably saved about 10 of them for various tasks. We use them to store a number of finer grain bulk items like rice, quinoa, steel cut oats, dried beans etc…and we also use them to keep filtered water in the fridge. They only cost $2 (if you exclude the cost of the milk you consume) and they are both visually appealing and have a nice ergonomic hand grip on them. I have never tried to remove the label on them though, which I imagine would be pretty difficult.
I’m a big fan of re-purposing vinegar bottles as well (along with old nozzles and pumps)!
Audrey, I use milk bottles, too! I thought I was the only one. I like their heft and the squarish base. Plus, colored glass is pretty, but I like clear glass so I can see what’s inside.
Youppi! Thank you for this post, it’s good inspiration 🙂
Great tips, as always! While we’re on the subject of packaging components (sidetracking, slightly), I was thinking in the shower this morning: how should I store my bar of Dr Bronners shower soap? Do you wrap it in anything? I ended up putting it back in its packaging and felt a little silly, but anxious about hygiene (or lack of) when it comes to slathering soap on my body each day that’s been left to sit! Do you leave your bars of soap out as they are, sans packaging? Over here in the U.K I’ve become fed up with buying shower gel in plastic bottles and don’t live anywhere near a bulk store :/
I use bar shampoo, and keep it on a piece of pumice stone which lets it drain (my soap dishes always seem to fill with water!).
Loofah soap cushions also work well.
thanks, great idea!
I think this is related idea to your simple stuff series and the whole idea of habit shifts, so I wanted to ask you and your readers is anyone has had a good experience using rechargeable batteries? I’m thinking specifically of AA and AAA types.
I know there are places that can recycle batteries but since they aren’t super easy to find/get to I’ve been thinking about making the switch to rechargeable. Would love to hear some opinions/experience with this. Thanks 🙂
we have used rechargeable batteries for a couple years now, especially AA and AAA. so far so good. so that being said, Yes, i would highly recommend them.
falls into the category of brilliant, common sense and something i never would have thought of! going to rifle through my recycling right now! (sean will likewise never let me forget the time he poured a salve i had cooling on the stove on his pasta thinking it was some sort of sauce. mmmmmm, WAX!)
For labeling glass, I use a sharpie paint pen. It stays put but comes off with a good scrub or a wipe with rubbing alcohol.
Biggest bottle reuse win of my life was the realization that some liquor bottles (Balvenie whiskey, for example) are very pretty and a quick removal of the label has created a lovely water jug that we use whenever we have guests over.
My family I used to volunteer at a living history farm, the period was 1890-1910. So nearly everything was in glass jars, no plastic of course. Open shelves and loads of things (because a family out west couldn’t easily procure items so they’d stock up, and also just more fun for guests to look at). I loved it there, no electronics, or even electricity. Slowly but surely I started making our own home a bit 1890, especially with the decanting. It just feels peaceful to me.
Ha! Can you tell I spent much of my childhood in historic house museums?
This seems like just the place for my question! Does anybody have any good ideas for how to store the 2 piece mason jar lids? I am separating them into 2 containers right now but it always seems a jumble and takes up a lot of space in a mini kitchen. It’s bothered me for awhile!
Hi Jill! I wrote a while back about how I keep my lids in a small drawstring bag, which I keep on a cabinet shelf inside our loaf pan to keep it orderly!
I enjoyed this post so much. My grandmother used to say that you should never set the table with anything you can read, and embracing this philosophy (with a few exceptions – pesky vegemite!) prompted my move to being ‘label minimal’. As I scan the room I’m in, the only things I can read are the spines of books and the labels of bottles of spirits (themselves chosen due to the perfect combination of taste and aesthetics) – such a delight!
love that! such a good rule of thumb.
Love the no- label philosophy! A sidenote on bulk items: its fascinating to me that where I live in Ecuador you can buy refillable dry erase markers and ink (not in bulk, but in larger containers) and many shops will retro fit your printer to use a kind of pourable ink which is cheaper. Haven’t found bulk soap yet!
On another note i once read that you can make liquid soap by combining a bar of soap, water, and glycerine, for pump soaps in a homemade bulk option!
I love the glass jars of Kirkland artichoke hearts from Costco. They are 7″ tall and 3″ in diameter with a 3″ wide lid/opening. I have at least a dozen storing nuts, dates, homemade soups that I freeze (leave a 1″ space at the top). After opening a plastic bag of frozen berries or vegetables I put what we don’t use in these jars and into the freezer.
You should do a post like this on pens / pencils / writing utensils.
I’m on this boat with you. It’s just too much visual noise. Although I don’t transfer medication I do have them (each one) in brown paper bags inside a a beautiful woven basket with lid 🙂 not your case but cat’s food also look positively more beautiful inside the large glass jar. I’m loving the new series!
A big thank you, all the way from India! I haven’t voluntarily bought any plastic container in years and besides, recycling- I use up ‘in-flows’ to stock up my twin toddlers art supplies/ travel laundry liquid etc. Your DIY on coconut oil+banking soda is a lifesaver. I just tried it and the gummy, horrible labels on their Cetaphil lotion came off like a dream!
Is your recipe for DIY linen spray in your book?
For writing on glass, I’m a big fan of regular black sharpie for clear liquids and silver sharpie for dark liquids (think soy sauce). It stays on well and comes off easily with hot water.
My favorite jars to remove labels and reuse:
Raw apple cider vinegar jars – I’m with you! I use those for all of my sauces as they are about half an inch shorter than my shelves and a perfect fit.
Trader Joe’s red wine vinegar jars – good for smaller amounts of fancy vinegars
GT’s Kombucha jars – perfect for making homemade vanilla since they have a slightly wider mouth and a “drip free” top when tightened; they’re not great for everyday pouring, however.
Trader Joe’s coconut oil jars – they have metal sealed lids, so they don’t rust, and look clean on the shelf. I use these for grains and pasta.
Onos Saft jars – these are my favorite for applications where you need to pour more often (Saft is a Swedish fruit syrup concentrate, great for cocktails or with soda water–I always keep some of the elderflower on hand as it’s essentially non-alcoholic St. Germain and a favorite among my friends that don’t drink). I aliquot vanilla into a bottle for daily use when I bake, as they have a perfect small black and unobtrusive plastic lip that keeps things spill free. The others I save for using at parties to put lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup, those sorts of cocktail ingredients in, which avoids a huge mess.
Trader Joe’s – if you want shorter and stouter bottles for putting alcohol in and keeping things without their brand, I like their bourbon bottles; they have a simple black plastic cap that is inoffensive, and no other identifying marks once the label is off.
Also – Specialty Bottle is a great online resource for bottles, both plastic and glass.
What is your general approach to a medicine cabinet, especially with kids? I feel like we aquire so many “medicine” things since having kids (nasal aspirator, baby Tylenol, teething tablets, tiny fingernail clippers, gripe water, etc) maybe we just have particularly unhealthy/colicky children, but I feel like my medicine cabinet is always overrun. We even try to use natural remedies for things, but sometimes that makes for even more clutter because of all the herbs needed to make concoctions. Anyways…. Yeah, just curious if you have tips for a minimal medicine cabinet, with kiddos.
definitely depends the family needs, i’m sure. after faye was born, we bought an enamel wall-mounted first aid kit and use on the small drawers in it to keep a small supply of baby tylenol, thermometer, nail clippers, etc. we have this one!
I love your ideas for repurposing bottles- I keep collecting and collecting but don’t always find use for them, so this helps me to think about how I can put them to good use! 🙂 I feel very lucky to live in a city right now that has a shop I end up going to weekly- The Soap Dispensary (https://www.thesoapdispensary.com for any Vancouverites reading this!). It’s absolutely amazing and I end up refilling everything from soap to maple syrup. We will be moving away in a couple months and I’ll be so sad to be leaving easy access to bulk refilling. I wish it was as common in all cities.
Hi Erin! Silly question- I purchased the olive oil spouts from this post, but I can’t find a bottle that fits them (trying to recreate your soap dispenser pictured!). Can you point me in the direction of a specific bottle? I’ve tried a kombucha bottle but it was too small in diameter. Thank you kindly!
If you got the 1-inch cap that should fit any bottle with a 1-inch neck!
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