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 led to a film, a book, and a new NBC show. The husband-and-wife team discuss their family’s journey and offer advice for how others can follow in their footsteps.
How did this journey begin?
Fredrika: I’ve been an environmental writer for thirty years and was already recycling, eating organic, and going to the farmers’ market. 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. James, on the other hand, was dead set against it.
James: 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 has the experience been for your kids?
Fredrika: Bella was nine when we went zero waste, and there’s a hilarious part in our documentary where she complained that others people had trash cans and asked why we couldn’t be “normal.” Our boys, though, have no memories of that. For the longest time, our youngest, Liam, who’s now eight, didn’t understand that there was something called a trash can and that most people have them.
James: The boys are now at an age when they’re learning patience, which doesn’t come naturally to kids. So it’s actually not even a zero-waste skill but a life skill that needs to be learned along with our lifestyle. Our garden is a good example of this, and our kids play a big part in it. Our ten-year-old, Noah, loves hunting for curl grubs and feeding them to our chickens.
Has your zero-waste lifestyle helped during COVID-19?
Fredrika: It’s made the pandemic much easier to get through. Our friends depend much more on food from the grocery store, whereas we have a 400-square-foot garden, 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-19 shut everything down, people wanted to learn how to eat and live on a budget, so we started our YouTube channel to help.
Was there a lot of trial and error?
Fredrika: It took us nine years to become zero waste, so it takes time. You have to be kind to yourself and enjoy the journey. We had to do a lot of research and experience many trials and errors, as you said. We’ve definitely had times when things didn’t work out—for example, we made a dishwasher powder that was a disaster.
James: We have this motto that if we can’t recycle, reuse, or compost it, we don’t buy it. But it took a while to get there. You’ve got to take it one step at a time, and every step is a victory.
What are some misconceptions about your lifestyle?
Fredrika: We obviously spend time in the garden and cook fresh meals, but people think we’re sitting here doing zero-waste projects all day long. I actually consider myself a lazy person.
James: I think she has a different definition of the word lazy. [Laughs] Another assumption is that it must cost a lot of money. In reality, many of the things we do go back to the simple ways our grandparents did them because they didn’t have a lot of money. It’s actually much more cost-effective than just buying something at the store—we save about $18,000 a year living a zero-waste life. It’s allowed us to go down to one car, which also helps from a sustainability perspective.
Fredrika: We don’t do this to complicate our life; we do this to uncomplicate our life. 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. Less waste equals more happiness.
How do you feel about how far you’ve come on this journey?
James: Younger people have 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 to effect change 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’re grown 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.
10 Tips from the Zero Waste Family
- Want to buy something? Hold off a few days to think of alternatives, like buying it used or borrowing it.
- Don’t be shy; ask for a mug at a place like Starbucks or bring your own reusable cup.
- Buy a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic one.
- Stock your closets with organic or secondhand clothes.
- Create a “birthday box” of items, such as candles and gift wrap, that can be reused for everyone’s birthday.
- Compost, and then compost more. (“You can even compost meat and bones,” says James.)
- Plan and pack snacks ahead of time for you and your kids.
- Drink coffee? Make it yourself, put it in a Thermos, and bring it with you.
- Bring your own containers to restaurants for leftovers.
- Look for zero-waste shops in your community where you can refill glass bottles with things like shampoo.
For more info, visit zerowastefamily.com