empty jar of jam

In the realm of upcycling, empty glass jars and bottles are definitely rock stars.

Use them to tote salads to work or as stylishly offbeat drinkware at a party. If your rolling pin is out of reach, pick up a big jar or bottle to flatten your dough. Even with no fuss, these glass containers are infinitely functional. They’re also well-suited for intriguing transformations, such as DIY lamps.

Before taking advantage of these thrifty and versatile reusables, you’ll likely want to peel off labels and eliminate other evidence of their former duties. (No need for pickle odor wafting from a repurposed bottle brimming with seashells.)

While some old food jars and bottles are snap to clean, others need a little extra elbow grease. We poked around for tips on how to freshen them up, inside and out. Here are the best tidbits we found.

Clean, empty jars
Once you’re done with our tips, you’ll have clean, odor-free jars ready for reuse. Photo: Shutterstock

How To Remove Labels

Soak and scrub

The ever-popular approach involves soaking the whole jar in soapy water, sometimes overnight. If the label doesn’t release on its own, it should be easier to rub off with a sponge, steel wool, or a paint scraper.

Peanut butter

The website Refresh Living features a technique that involves soaking the jar in a solution of washing soda and water. Afterward, for bits of residue left on the glass, the writer applies a thin layer of peanut butter, waits a few hours, then uses an old credit card to scrape off the peanut butter and, with it, the residue.

Baking soda and oil

After soaking the jars and peeling the labels, WikiHow suggests removing residue by applying a paste of equal parts baking soda and cooking oil, such as olive oil, canola oil, or vegetable oil. Wait 10 to 30 minutes before rubbing off the paste in small circular motions.

woman looking through empty peanut butter jar
Did you know peanut butter could help remove labels from your jars? Photo: Shutterstock

How To Remove Peanut Butter and Other Sticky Foods

  • Lisa LeDoux, education program director at Scrap PDX, a nonprofit organization in Portland, Oregon, that promotes creative reuse of materials, shared her technique to avoid wasting water with excess rinsing. With the jar half-full of water, shake vigorously, she says. Then add more water for an overnight soak. “I add a drop of dish soap if it’s something with lots of oil like peanut butter. The jar pretty much rinses clean the next day,” she says.
  • Elizabeth Sturges, former president of Students for Recycling at Ohio State University, loosens food residue by swirling broken eggshells in a jar of soapy water.

How To Remove Odors

  • The Borei Design website suggests a solution of baking soda stirred into hot water. Let the mixture sit inside the jar for a few days with the lid on tightly. This trick worked well for one reader, who wrote in the comments; “I tried washing in the dishwasher a gazillion times, soaking it [with] dish soap, vinegar and etc. Nothing worked like the baking soda. It totally does the trick.”
  • Other potential deodorizers worth a try include vinegar and coffee grounds.

Want more? Read Growing Up-cycle: 15 Ways to Reuse Baby Food Jars

Originally published on March 27, 2017, this article was updated in May 2021.

By Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.