Labeling Jars and Containers

Trying to find a sustainable way to label jars was a big struggle for me. The aesthetic organizer in me loved the look of label makers on jars, and second to that, I think that white paint marker hand writing looks really classy.

ms.jpgPhoto Source:

But neither of those options are sustainable. Not unless you can find a place that refills those paint markers, but are those chemicals environmentally safe? The ingredients aren’t listed on the markers, so I have no idea. Also note that Martha Stewart put Triscuits in one of the jars, which are packaged in plastic and cardboard originally. C’mon M-dawg, that’s not zero waste!

So what can one do?

Much like high school emo kids, some people just need labels. So I have some theories.

https___i1.wp.com_www.unclutter.com_wp-content_uploads_2014_09_Label-Maker.pngphoto source: Organized Greetings

I posted the jar label dilemma issue on Instagram few months ago and I asked my readers what they recommended as a sustainable solution. One whacky reply from was surprisingly from another zero waste writer, and it will always stand out in my memory.

They stated that jar labeling wasn’t an issue for them because they had a life time supply of label makers from the 70s. So they could just label away for the rest of their lives, producing tons of trash, but it was still somehow sustainable because they had obtained the label maker accessories before they went “Zero waste.”

I wish I could have posted my expression. It looked something like this:



Thank you for the most unrealistic solution ever.

So for the rest of us who didn’t inherit label makers from our dead Uncle who apparently worked at 3M, what can we do?

The amount of waste generated from making that tiny little label is absurd, by the way. The labels are packaged in a cartridge that looks like a cassette tape. The cartridge is packaged in another layer of clear protective plastic. The labels themselves are plastic and the backing that peels off of them are, you guessed it, coated in plastic. All of these plastics are not recyclable in most municipalities, by the way.

Even the more modern label makers are packaged in plastic and have many single-use plastic components.


If you’ve got ’em, use ’em. Just be careful. When I worked in a vet hospital, we were careful to never label our IV bags with sharpies, because the ink can seep through that plastic and into the solution intended to go into your veins and circulate throughout your body.

I don’t think sharpie ink can get through a metal mason jar lid though. That would be really impressive. And terrifying.

Chalkboard Paint and Stickers:

jars-chalkboard-labels.jpgPhoto source: theflibbertigibbetblog

The chalkboard-on-the-jar look is admittedly quite classy looking. But we run into the same obstacles as before: plastic packaging.

Chalkboard Paint: I’ve seen chalkboard paint available in metal paint containers which are historically pretty difficult to recycle. But is that paint safe to be around food? Not sure. And it it safe to wash? I know most of it is not, but if it is, and it’s considered food safe, this might be a good alternative to other label systems. Chalk is usually packaged in cardboard and wipes off easily, as needed.

Chalkboard Stickers: Like label maker stickers, these will wash off when wet, so they’re basically single-use, and they’re almost always packaged in thin, non-recyclable plastic.


I did, in fact, find a solution. But let me say one more thing first:

Do we really need to label EVERYTHING? Can we not tell by looking through the clear glass jar that, yes, those are popcorn kernels. And yes, those are almonds. Okay, not everything is obvious. I have like seven different flours that look pretty similar. But the key is not to be wasteful, so why go overboard with the labels if that means wasting ink, label maker material, or any material?


Really? Those are chocolate chips, popcorn kernels, and sprinkles? Thankfully they were labeled otherwise I would be living in mystery.  


My point is, almost none of these jars would have needed labels in my kitchen. I am pretty confident recognizing most of these ingredients. Except maybe the Quick Barley. I am not familiar with that. We are strictly a medium-paced barley household. Heh.


The Solution:

Grease Pencils


I have found a pencil that writes on glass and metal, and as they’re made out of non-toxic wax and paper, they are 100% compostable. They are called Grease Pencils but I have also seen them labeled as China Markers, Chinagraph Pencils or Glass Pencils. They are usually found packaged on cardboard with a plastic cover, like many pens and pencils are sold these days at office supply stores. However, if you have access to an art store, you can often find these little guys for sale individually, totally package free.

Grease Markers (AKA China Markers) 

They’re awesome. I use them on the lids so my greasy fingers don’t rub off the labels, and everything looks uniform on the shelf. So it might be a good idea to place the obvious items on the wall, so you don’t have to pull them off one by one to read the labels to see what they are.

It’s also convenient for any jars that are in drawers: just pull out the drawer, labels are facing you.






Labeling people is usually not a good idea, but we don’t have to go overboard with labeling our jars or other containers either. Just when necessary. Use the materials you have and don’t feel guilty for using a sharpie you bought before you started practicing sustainability.

Do you have an environmentally-friendly, waste-free solution for labeling or organizing YOUR food storage containers?

Please share in the comments and you can be featured on this post! (With your permission, of course!)



Disclosure statement: As an Amazon Associate I earn a small percentage from qualifying purchases if accessed from this site. As always, use Amazon as a last resort to buy the items necessary to prevent future waste. For more information, check out 5 Zero Waste Shopping Tips


  1. Thank you for this article. I LOVE my Brother label maker. Mainly for household files. Reusing the manilla file folders is WAY easier and cleaner with the label maker. Also, I DO mail back (carbon, I know) my cassettes for recycling- they encourage that. That said, I specifically was looking up online what the alternatives were- I appreciate you posting this!
    Lastly, I am an herbalist so labeling is a must. It IS easy to forgot what powered herb looks like vs. another powdered herb.


  2. I like the idea of writing the label on paper and tying it around the jar with jute or cotton string, if you use the right pencil to write on it then that should all be zero waste. Can look quite uniform and nice when done this way. I need labels for recording the date that I bought things, not just the name of what’s in the jar, I prefer to do this so I can do a big pantry clean up and use things that may have been sitting there too long.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the idea of writing the label on paper and using jute or cotton string to tie around the jar, if you use a pencil this can all be zero waste.
    I know not everything needs to be labeled for the name of what’s in the jar, but I like to record the best before date or the date that I purchased the item so I know when something is needing to be used up. Also helps make it accessible for other people who have trouble recognising which ingredients are which.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this post (and that it came up so high in the search results for “best way to label mason jars”). I came looking for ideas for labeling my jars so they would look “cute” when I give them to people. Your post reminded me there are other ideas to consider and why. I’ll stick with the minimal approach, because it’s more aligned with my values.


  5. I have been trying to find a solution and enjoyed reading this article! I’m really looking for a replacement for the vinyl labels for various things people might label as sometimes paper tags and grease markers might not be appropriate. So glad to learn more about the grease markers though! One solution I thought of and plan to try is paper labels in between the lid parts so it holds in place. A zero waste face cream I purchased one time did this with their mason jar so everything was completely recyclable/reusable and not awful sticky wasteful labels!


  6. I’m curious, are these grease pencils/markers washable? Can the writing be removed with some soap? Love the advice here. Thanks for taking zero waste seriously!


  7. Thanks for explaining that sharpies are fine to use for labeling metal. I want to buy a seamer so I can more easily can goods from my large harvest each year. I’m glad I read your article and learned why it’s important to label the goods as well!


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