Interview with Fredrika Syren and James Harker
Photography by The Zero Waste Family
Fredrika Syren and James Harker turned an eco-friendly home challenge into an adventure called the Zero Waste Family, which has resulted in a film, a book, and an appearance on an NBC show. The husband-and-wife team discuss their family’s journey and offer advice for how others can follow in their footsteps.
Whose idea was this?
Fredrika: I’ve been an environmental writer for thirty years and was already living an eco-friendly lifestyle. But once our daughter, Bella, was born in 2006, things completely changed. I realized that it was her planet and her future, so I started this journey toward zero waste. James, on the other hand, was dead set against it.
James: Yeah, I was the foot-dragger. I had a busy job, so Fredrika started doing little challenges, like “Let’s try to spend every Saturday this month not using any electricity” or “Let’s try to shop at the farmers market instead of the grocery store for six weeks.” Little by little, I started getting more in tune with it. One day in 2015, I moved the trash can from the kitchen to the other side of the house. That gave everyone a few moments to think about what we were doing and really propelled us forward.
How have your neighbors reacted to your lifestyle?
Fredrika: In the beginning, people didn’t understand what we were doing. Today, the majority of people are very supportive of us. Our neighbors love our garden.
James: The garden has also been a big source of community for us. Several neighbors have started planter boxes based on what we do, and it’s a source of conversation.
Has your zero-waste lifestyle helped during COVID-19?
Fredrika: It’s made the pandemic much easier to handle. Our friends depend much more on food from the grocery store, whereas we have a 400-square-foot garden with dozens of different fruits and vegetables, tend to cook everything ourselves, and buy fifty-pound bags of beans, lentils, and rice.
We’re also very creative with coming up with solutions. No toilet paper? A zero-waster can figure it out. No disinfectant? We make our own but don’t use chemicals. In fact, when COVID shut everything down, people wanted to learn how to eat and live on a budget, so we started our YouTube channel to help.
What are your biggest eco-unfriendly pet peeves?
Fredrika: When people say they don’t have time to do zero waste. For a while, James would travel for a week at a time, and I was at home taking care of the kids, the pets, and the garden by myself. If I could do it, anyone can. Another is seeing plastic water bottles. Don’t we know better than that today?
James: My biggest pet peeve is definitely single-use plastic. All plastic impacts the environment, from the extraction of the oil to the production to the packaging to the disposal, at which point it sits in the landfill virtually forever.
Is the zero-waste lifestyle economical?
James: Many of the things we do go back to the simple way our grandparents did them because they didn’t have a lot of money. Making and growing things at home is actually much more cost-effective than buying everything at a store. I always tell people to not look at their savings now but over ten years. Take one decision: using reusable paper towels instead of disposable ones. You’ll save around $1,800 over that ten-year period. If you can make thirty or forty other decisions like that, you’ll get serious savings. In fact, we actually save about $18,000 a year living a zero-waste life.
Fredrika: We don’t do this to complicate our life—we do this to uncomplicate it. We are a much happier family since going zero waste. James is not working sixty hours a week anymore; he’s working from home part time and is here for the kids. And that makes us a very happy family. Less waste equals more happiness.
So time really is money in your zero-waste world?
Fredrika: Definitely. I wish more people realized that you don’t have to work yourself to death. In Sweden, where I’m from, you get six weeks of vacation no matter where you work, and you’re expected to take it. It’s a slower-paced life. Also, when you work so hard to pay to bring things into your home or drive to a store to buy something instead of making it yourself, you also pay for it in time spent. That realization was a life-changer for us.
James: We’ve got a cultural challenge in this country—we believe that spending money on things makes us happy, so we work all the time. Instead, if you’re going to spend money, spend it on your house and make it a nice area to hang out in. Take your time, sit down, and enjoy your coffee at the coffee shop. We are so go, go, go all the time. The zero-waste life encourages you to slow down and try not to work forty, fifty, or sixty hours a week but instead create more time for more important things like family.
How have the media projects impacted you?
James: To me, the film was the changing point for us. When the documentary team said that our story was really interesting, I wasn’t 100 percent clear about what our story was. It took them coming in, interviewing us, and filming us for a few days for the storyline to emerge. However, the film was about our journey, not a how-to, so Fredrika thought she should take the articles she’d written and put them in a book.
Fredrika: We’ve always given our kids a say in doing this. In fact, when the crew approached us about making a film, I said I would only do it if everyone in our family was on board. Surprisingly, all the kids wanted to tell our story.
How do you feel about this journey?
James: Younger people feel a lot of anxiety about climate change. So when our kids learned that they could take steps to be personally responsible and take action, it gave them a greater sense of control. Providing our kids with not only the tools but also the confidence that something can be done has been one of the unexpectedly great outcomes of this journey.
Fredrika: Our kids talk about how when they grow up, they’ll grow food for themselves. Bella has already figured out that, in college, she’s going to convert a camper van into a tiny home, where she’s going to grow food and cook for her friends. So it’s neat to see that our kids are going to take this into the future, and I believe we’re going to be zero waste for the rest of our lives. I’m living my dream, and I’m so grateful.
For more info, visit zerowastefamily.com