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.