Celebrate a Design Classic this Recycle Week: The jam jar, the world’s original eco-packaging

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Friends-of-Glass-Timeline-ALT-VERSION-low-resIt is Recycle Week once again, this year, 2016, from September 12 to September 18, and what better time to celebrate one of the most recyclable products on the planet – the humble jam jar. With over 200 million produced each year, the jam jar makes a familiar and welcome sight on our breakfast tables. Now it’s time to take a closer look at this environmentally friendly design classic.

A glass jam jar is a simple, beautiful and practical design that won’t deteriorate no matter how many times it is re-used or recycled. Because glass is inert, the jam jar keeps its contents fresher for longer and when put into the recycling bank, it takes as little as 30 days for it to be returned to the shelf as a new jar – making it a perfect role model for the circular economy.

But glass jars are not just jam jars. Many other produce comes in a variety of glass jars. There are pickles of various kinds, there is mustard and many more besides jam. So, why don't we just celebrate the humble glass jar instead of just the humble jam jar?

Across Europe, 73% of glass jars and bottles sold are collected for recycling, and 82% of these are used to make new jars and bottles. In doing so, over 12 million tonnes of virgin raw materials are saved (enough to build two Egyptian pyramids) together with cutting 7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road).

What’s more, despite the name ‘bottle bank’, glass jars, like bottles, are infinitely recyclable when put into one of these recycling units, and the design of a glass jam jar makes it ideal for up-cycling at home. It can be washed and re-used as a handy household object such as a vase, tea light holder or lunch container.

Rebecca Cocking from Friends of Glass says: “Jam jars are the original form of sustainable packaging and it’s vital that we recycle them properly for a true circular economy to exist. Whilst glass recycling figures in Europe are promising, we still need to recycle more glass here in the UK. Only by putting high levels of cullet (used glass pieces) back into the system can we successfully reduce CO2 emissions and save energy.

“Upcycling jam jars is fun and creative, and by doing it you get more than one product for your money. The very nature of glass means you can keep transforming your jam jar as often as you like until you are ready to take it to the recycling bank where it can be made into a new bottle or jar.”

Over the years, the glass jam jar has evolved into the design we know today. Its origins can be traced back to the early 19th century when it was rudimentary in design, having no screw top but instead sealed with wax. Since then, a number of preserving jar shapes and designs have enjoyed popularity including Mason jars and Lightening jars, as well as the commercial jam jar we know and love today. From Robertsons, Hartleys and Chivers through to own label and French brands such as Bonne Maman, jam producers have looked no further than the classic glass jam jar as the perfect vessel for preserving taste.

Recycle Week, organised by WRAP, comes in the wake of the latest installment of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War On Waste campaign, which once again has put the spotlight on what we do with our packaging waste. It’s a good moment then to celebrate the jam jar – a reminder that one of the most sustainable and beautiful forms of packaging ever created is already sitting in front of you at breakfast.

When it comes to glass recycling the figures from industry, I know, sound very impressive. The problem is that they do not always hold up in reality for all too often the glass for recycling actually does not end up making new glass jars, for instance, but is used to make a far inferior product which is then actually the end stage, and that is road aggregate.

As far as glass jars and glass bottles are concerned and recycling we are still, alas, seriously missing the point.

Instead of going for “recycling” glass jars and glass bottles should be returned for reuse – put a refund on them as there used to be on glass bottles in days gone by – or they should be reused at home, in the office, and/or “upcycled”. Not rocket science.

During the Second World War in Britain glass jar were collected not for recycling but to be reused to put new jam, or whatever other produce, into them after washing and sterilizing. Bottles anyway went back as they all had a refund attached to them. Doing it that way would save more energy and thus money still but, alas, that would then cut out the recycling industry and they – and government – would not want to do that now, would they.

The first stop for any glass jars you end up with at home should always be the reuse box, so to speak, and that especially as glass jars simply happen to be so very versatile and useful. And, you have paid for them by purchasing the product. They are not giveaways. So, you hold on to as many as you can make use of. Don't toss them into the recycling bin and then go out to buy “recycled glass” storage jars; those glass produce jars can very happily fulfill the same job at no extra costs at all. Think before you toss. Recycle only when you have exhausted all of your own possibilities for reuse and upcycling.

© 2016

See also “Let’s have a jar” and “The humble glass jar”.