Most of us want to be kind to Mother Nature. But when we’re feeling maxed out by work, family, and other obligations, limiting our impact on the environment can be easier said than done.

Delicious Living found three families in situations that make it a challenge to recycle, even with the greenest of intentions: raising young children, remodeling a home, and traveling. We then asked environmental experts Kit Cole, Southern California external affairs director for Waste Management Inc. , and Jeffrey Potter, director of communications programs for the Wisconsin-based Biodiversity Project, to assess each family’s situation. We hope their advice sheds light on some simple, convenient ways to tread more lightly on the earth—even if it feels as if you’re sprinting most of the time.

{Recycling challenge}: Growing family, growing consumption
Who’s feeling maxed: Shawn Edmondson and Tracy Ross, carpenter and writer-editor, parents of two

Admirable green goals: Minimize trash produced and set good conservation examples for their children

Environmental issues: When Tracy Ross and Shawn Edmondson lived in rural Alaska, they were “environmentally conscious by default,” Ross says. The couple grew most of their food, and because they didn’t have garbage service, they were careful about what they purchased and ultimately threw away. But now that they live in a less rural setting in Colorado and have two young children, Scout, 3, and Hatcher, 2, they find it increasingly difficult to be ecofriendly. “The second you have kids,” Edmondson says, “you’re doing more laundry, buying more things, creating more garbage.”

The family’s home now hosts a growing collection of plastic toys, disposable items, and packaged goods. Diapers are perhaps the biggest challenge. Although the couple intended to use cloth diapers, they resorted to using disposables because they save time. They sometimes buy chlorine- and bleach-free diapers from their local health food store, but more often they purchase cheaper, conventional diapers in bulk.

Ross and Edmondson recycle what they can, but they haven’t had time to research where to recycle items that aren’t picked up at the curb. “We have good intentions, but we’re about as strapped for time as two humans can be,” says Ross.

Our experts weigh in
On diapers: Potter urges all parents to try much-improved cloth diapers, which boast user-friendly Velcro or snaps. The bottom line is that disposables are worse for the environment, he says. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 3 million tons (about 20 billion diapers) are dumped in U.S. landfills each year. And because of landfill design, most diapers will take centuries to decompose.

The best disposables, he says, are made from postconsumer recycled materials and are free of chlorine, bleach, and polyvinyl chloride toxins. But although their manufacturing process is less environmentally harmful, these diapers are no more biodegradable in a landfill, Cole notes.

On precyling: Ross and Edmondson should look at reducing and reusing before they think about recycling, says Potter. Come up with a “precycle” plan before shopping, he suggests. For example, buy yogurt, cereal, and dried foods in bulk, and choose fresh fruits and vegetables over canned or frozen. Purchasing locally grown produce avoids energy waste associated with transport, Cole notes. “Just say ‘no’ to juice pouches and other individually wrapped food items,” she adds. As an alternative, she suggests using permanent markers to personalize nondisposable plastic containers.

Plan where you shop, too. Shopping at used or consignment shops (for toys, clothes, CDs, DVDs, and the like) not only saves money, it also cuts down on new packaging, Cole says. The family can also recycle its own stuff. “Donate things to charities, or hold a toy swap with friends,” Cole says.

Batteries are another new-family hallmark; they are necessary for baby monitors, swings, and beloved noisy toys. Cole suggests using nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries. Radio Shack stores, drop-off recycling centers, and even some fire stations accept depleted rechargeable batteries for recycling. For more information, call 800.8BATTERY or go to www.rbrc.com.

On getting the kids involved: One way to educate children about the importance of recycling is to make toys, gift wrap, or other items out of “trash.” “Big packing boxes can become castles,” Cole says. “Frozen juice cans can become puppet heads, egg cartons can be turned into Christmas ornaments, and milk cartons can become musical instruments.” Another idea is to turn a visit to the local recycling drop-off center into a family activity.

Potter encourages the family to check out their local nature center, parks department, or Audubon chapter to find an environmental program geared toward families. “They could also explore their own back yard,” Potter says. “Growing a salad garden is a great way to teach children about our connection to nature.”

{Recycling challenge}: Remodeling a ranch-style home
Who’s feeling maxed: Corinne McKay and Dan Urist, writer-translator and computer consultant, parents of one

Admirable green goals: Make remodeling project as ecofriendly as possible by recycling old appliances, reusing or recycling construction material, and buying energy-efficient appliances

Environmental issues: The three-bedroom, ranch-style home Dan Urist and Corinne McKay purchased in 2004 is what one might call a “fixer-upper.” Built in 1958 and poorly maintained over the years, the house needs a new kitchen, two new bathrooms, new floors, and new windows. Neither Urist nor McKay has much remodeling experience, and they are living in the house with their 2-year-old daughter, Ada. Nevertheless, they are intent on doing most of the work themselves.

So far, they have run into interesting green challenges, such as what to do with the pink toilet and bathtub they ripped out and are now storing on the driveway. They haven’t found any takers through www.freecycle.org, an eBay-like website that helps find new homes for unwanted items. And Resource2000, a local company that resells building materials and housing fixtures, won’t take tubs, toilets, or sinks. “We seem to be left with the Dumpster or with making planters out of them,” Urist says.

The couple also wants to recycle their old refrigerator, stove, and dishwasher and replace them with energy-efficient models, as well as figure out how to recycle or reuse as much of their old construction material as possible.

Says McKay: “We have traveled a lot in other countries where people reuse everything. You realize how stupid it is to heave perfectly good materials into the Dumpster and then go to the store and buy more.”

Our experts weigh in
On recycling appliances: Because porcelain sinks and tubs are usually metal with a porcelain finish, these items can be recycled as scrap metal, Cole says. Toilets can be recycled at a concrete and asphalt recycling center. Check out www.earth911.org for information about the nearest appropriate recycling centers.

As for old appliances such as the refrigerator, stove, and dishwasher, Potter suggests trying to sell them to a local store that reconditions and resells such items. Alternately, they can purchase a newspaper classified ad or place a free listing on a community website such as www.craigslist.org. Stoves, washers, dryers, and microwaves in good condition might be donated to local churches, day care centers, or youth sports programs. Or just put them on the curb with a “Free” sign. The Steel Recycling Institute’s website (www.recycle-steel.org) provides information on recycling a wide range of steel appliances.

On replacing appliances: Before shopping, Urist and McKay should check out the EPA’s Energy Star website (www.energystar.gov) and its rating and labeling system. “They might even find that their Energy Star purchase merits a tax credit in their state,” Potter says.

On recycling construction material: Use a keen eye to assess what can be reused before you recycle it. Urist and McKay should first reuse old boards and other materials in their own remodeling work, Potter says. Then they can look into offering reusable items to the local Habitat forHumanity group, or even to a high school industrial arts program.

They should also check in again with Resource2000, Potter suggests, about donating materials, such as lumber, windows, cabinets, bricks, and fencing. But, he adds, be careful not to reuse or donate items that contain lead paint or asbestos; the latter used to be a common material in floor and ceiling tiles.

When buying new supplies, Urist and McKay should try to select regionally manufactured building materials. “This supports their local businesses and reduces the energy used and pollution generated by trucking in materials,” Cole says.

To find more community-based information on environmentally sound remodeling, including how to find local green-building professionals, log onto www.greenhomeguide.com.

{Recycling challenge}: Traveling
Who’s feeling maxed: Brian and Tisha Schuller, environmental consultants, parents of one

Admirable green goals: Be better at recycling while traveling

Environmental issues: As environmental business consultants, Tisha and Brian Schuller have made it a priority to reduce their environmental impact. “We try to tread lightly and live that example for our son, Carter,” says Tisha. The example tends to slip, however, while traveling—something the Schullers do a lot. “There’s all of this waste that we can’t seem to get around while traveling,” Tisha says.

For example, the Schullers stick to cloth napkins, reusable rags, and cloth diapers at home but find it necessary to use disposable napkins and other paper products while traveling. Tisha says she also tends to purchase packaged food for airplane and car trips—stuff she normally wouldn’t buy but that makes packing food much more convenient.

The Schullers have tried to make and bring their own food, but hauling and cleaning reusable plastic ware often requires too much time, space, and effort. “We have packed dish soap to clean Tupperware inour hotel room, but it’s a hassle—particularly when you’re on vacation and trying to relax,” Tisha says.

It has also proven difficult to recycle glass, plastic bottles, and newspapers while on the road. “If you go to a place like San Francisco, it’s pretty easy to recycle, but we’ve been in small towns in Idaho where you can’t find any recycle bins,” Tisha says. “I’ve also found there is no obvious way to recycle things in a hotel or motel.”

Our experts weigh in
On limiting trash: Again, Potter advocates using the “precycle” philosophy while planning and shopping for a trip. “One simple precycling solution is to carry a reusable bottle for water rather than buying bottled water and discarding the container,” he says.

“They might also want to travel with lightweight coffee cups that can be refilled and rinsed out,” Cole says. Other tips: Rinse and reuse plastic cutlery; keep excess napkins and condiments to use later in the trip; and keep old shopping bags in the car or suitcases to use for shopping, toting items to the beach or park, and separating dirty clothes and shoes when packing.

When traveling by plane, the Schullers should ask flight attendants to refill glasses rather than give them new ones, and they should inquire about the airline’s recycling policy. A growing number of airlines are recycling cans, newspaper, and other items collected onboard, Cole says. For instance, Midwest Express Airlines and Southwest Airlines maintain recycling bins on their planes.

On rural-area recycling: It’s true that rural areas are less likely to have recycling because it isn’t yet cost-efficient. “Nonetheless, even in rural states, cities often have some sort of program,” says Cole, who suggests looking for recycling centers at grocery stores.

And no matter how small the town, the family should express concern about the lack of recycling to hotel managers and ask if they will accept and recycle their cans, glass, and other recyclable items. “Many hotel associations and hotel chains are making an effort to increase their green-friendly image,” says Potter. “Some hotels leave cards in the rooms letting guests know that they can save water and energy if they reuse their sheets and towels.”

On saving energy: Check out www.greenhotels.com for more ideas on saving energy while traveling, Potter suggests. Some good ideas include turning their home’s water heater to its lowest setting and turning the heater or air conditioner down (or off) before leaving on vacation, taking photos with a regular camera rather than a disposable one, and walking or using public transportation as much as possible while on the road.

Writing this article inspired Carlotta Mast to transform the cardboard box from her new dishwasher into a play fort for her son.