As children of the '60s, Sue and Chuck Feeney of Irvine were interested in protecting the environment even before the original Earth Day in 1970.
"We've always tried to be real conscious of saving energy and saving water and things like that," Sue says.
But when their son Scott started going through the family's trash three years ago, they were surprised to discover that instead of being part of the solution, they were part of the problem.
Scott, who was born about the same time as that environmental movement 21 years ago, started pulling out plastic containers, metal cans, cardboard boxes and other items and confronting his parents with them.
Those things aren't garbage, he told them. They're recyclable.
His sister, Shelley, now 17 and an environmental activist at Irvine High School, agreed.
Their parents had to admit they were right, and so the family decided to do something about it.
"We recycle almost everything now," says Sue. "Instead of three or four trash cans a week, we only set out one, and it's never full."
The Feeneys are hardly the only family to get interested in recycling these days. But without a workable system for dealing with all the things that no longer get thrown away, all that accumulated junk can easily take over a household. When that happens, it's tempting to abandon all those good intentions and simply toss it all out.
Annette Campbell and R.J. Schwictenberg of Costa Mesa set up their home recycling system five years ago and have been perfecting it ever since. They got started the same way the Feeneys did--in this case, it was Schwictenberg who started going through the trash. He still looks over everything the couple is planning to throw away just in case any recyclables might have been missed.
"We started getting heavily into gardening, and one thing led to another," Campbell says. "It's all part of the same thing."
She and Schwictenberg have since become members of the Greens, a worldwide environmental movement that began in Europe and has since spread to the United States and elsewhere.
"People don't realize how much waste goes through their homes until they start trying to deal with it," Schwictenberg says. "But when you do, you realize that one person or one family really can make a big difference."
Once you've made the commitment, the next step in successful recycling is to set up a system. Your home is already set up for traditional waste disposal, with a trash can in the kitchen, wastebaskets in many of the rooms and big trash cans in the garage or outdoors to be set out by the curb for collection.
Many families make the mistake of trying to recover their recyclables at the end of that process, after everything has been mixed together. That approach is not only messier, but it makes recycling much more work than it needs to be. Instead, it's better to use separate containers right from the start.
The Feeneys, for example, started placing cardboard boxes next to the wastebaskets in some rooms, so that junk mail, cardboard and paper could be set aside for recycling. Schwictenberg and Campbell mounted a can crusher on the wall in their kitchen.
"It's really just a matter of retraining yourself," Sue Feeney says. "The box makes you ask yourself, 'Is this recyclable?' "
Cashing in on the current rebirth of environmental awareness, some companies are now marketing ready-made home recycling systems, sold at hardware and other stores.
Buying a complete system might make sense, but look it over first: Are the containers sturdy enough and big enough to handle the job? Your family may need an extra-large bin for newspapers, for example, and a much smaller one for glass, so you may need to create your own custom arrangement. Keep in mind that containers should be small enough to lift and to fit in your car if you are taking them to a recycling center. If you have to transfer them to another container, you'll be doing more work.
Also be wary of prefabricated recycling systems that depend on plastic bags to hold the sorted items. The goal is to reduce the amount of trash your household generates, not add to it.
You'll need two containers for paper: One for newspapers and another for everything else.
Paper that has been coated or bonded with plastic or metal can't be recycled, but most everything else can be. The Feeneys draw the line, however, at recycling used tissues. "I don't know, after you've blown your nose into it, it just seems like you should throw it away," Sue Feeney says.
Many Orange County cities will pick up newspapers for recycling as part of their regular trash programs, but they won't accept junk mail, cardboard and other paper. Most recycling centers, however, will take them. In any case, be sure to remove or mark through names and addresses on recycled mail.
Campbell and Schwictenberg recycle most of their newspapers the traditional way, but they set aside a small stack of newspapers to be used as garden mulch. "It works very well," Campbell says.