Former North County family turns to zero-waste lifestyle

The Syren family at work in their garden, which they says is a classroom for their kids.
The Syren family at work in their garden, which they says is a classroom for their kids.

(Courtesy of James Syren and The Zero Waste Family)

Fredrika Syren wrote a published practical guide on the subject


On a mid-San Diego residential street lined with attractive moderately-sized homes with well-manicured frontyards, the property of former Encinitas residents Fredrika and James Syren sticks out.

Like a green thumb.

From front to back, the open space that surrounds their property in San Diego’s Talmadge neighborhood flourishes with food-producing flora.

They grow 17 kinds of fruits and berries, and 33 different vegetables and herbs, though not all at the same time.

“Grass has been a thorn in my side ever since I got here,” Fredrika said. “You can’t eat the grass, but you can eat the garden.”

The parents and their three children grow much of what they consume, which does not include meat. They supplement their garden output with purchases at local farmer markets and stores where they can buy grains in bulk.

The whole point of their approach? Zero waste. They run a household devoid of dependence on materials that will end up in a landfill and contribute to environmental contamination.

That’s one reason they left coastal North County, where James grew up, to live in a more urbanized community in San Diego.

“We were thinking about having a little bit more space and kind of live closer to downtown and the farmers markets,” James said. “We go to the farmers markets every week to buy what we don’t grow here and the Hillcrest Farmers Market is one of the best in town.”

The cover of “A Practical Guide to Zero Waste for Families” by Fredrika Syren
The cover of “A Practical Guide to Zero Waste for Families” by Fredrika Syren
(Elena Shur)

The family’s pursuit of this lifestyle led to a book, “A Practical Guide to Zero Waste for Families”, authored by Fredrika Syren, a professional environmental writer.

The second edition of the book has been published by BBL Publishing, an imprint of Dallas, Texas-based Build.Buzz.Launch. Media & Publishing.

A book launch and signing of the book was scheduled Sunday, May 1, at Warwick’s bookstore in La Jolla.

Another appearance follows on May 15, from 2 to 4 p.m. at The Mighty Bin, 2855 El Cajon Blvd., Suite 4, in San Diego.

Information on how to obtain the book as well as other products by the Syrens and tips on subjects such as achieving zero-waste, composting and gardening can be found at their website,

The 191-page volume covers in detail numerous subjects, including how to get to zero waste with shopping, cooking and cleaning, parties, laundry, school supplies and traveling.

“This is the guide I wish I had when I started that would have helped me,” Fredrika Syren said. “I want to help other people to reduce their waste. This way they have a reference book to go to and look up whatever.”

It features one chapter, “Zero Waste: Confessions of a Teenager,” written by Isabella Syren, the oldest of their children. She and brothers Noah and Liam play key roles on the mini-farm.

“Our garden is a classroom for our kids,” Fredrika Syren said. “They learn math and science out there and they learn patience. If you want to teach a kid about miracles, start a garden.”

James Syren added, “It is amazing when they plant the seeds how much more engaged they are at watering. And when it bursts out of the soil, they are so excited.”

Holding a book signing at The Mighty Bin, which touts itself as San Diego’s Zero Waste Grocery Store, is a prime example of why the Syrens chose to leave North County.

The store on bustling El Cajon Boulevard is about 10 minutes from their home.

Also, at the time, there was better access to foods sold in bulk so they could be purchased and collected in reusable cloth sacks rather than plastic bags and containers.

In recent years, North County has seen growing opportunities for households to strive for zero waste.

The Syrens, however, remain entrenched in San Diego, not only because it better enabled their environmentally-conscious outlook. Their children attend the Waldorf School of San Diego, an independent institution with campuses located near their home.

Yet, even the school’s curriculum dovetails with the family’s approach as it offers courses on the environment and gardening.

Their lifestyle and ultimately the book are the culmination of a pursuit initiated by Fredrika Syren in 2006, when she decided the family should start reducing its carbon footprint.

“Once I became a mom, I realized that climate change is an issue that actually requires a lot of attention because it affects my kids’ future,” said Fredrika, a professional environmental writer. “It made me do a lot of research and realize that individual action is actually very important.

“So I started slowly making some changes because I became a stay-at-home mom and had a little more time on my hands. I decided that I’m going to do this no matter what.”

In 2015 while living in Sweden, where she was born and raised, the couple discovered the changes were saving money. James Syren pitched the idea of going completely zero waste.

“That’s when we started finding alternatives for everything that we were buying or we just stopped buying it so we could get on this journey,” he said. “It took several years, but we eventually got there.”

Upon moving back to other U.S. and settling in San Diego, they continued to refine methods, increasing their independence from the culture of mass-production.

The family’s techniques evolved. They use several different methods of composting, including worms and garden waste, while fertilizing with chicken manure and egg shells.

“Composting is so important,” said James Syren, who works in the software industry. “When you throw food scraps in the trash can, people think that when it goes to the landfill, it gets composted and it doesn’t. It turns into methane gas, which is a terrible greenhouse gas.”

The chicken waste comes from about a half-dozen fowl that share the outdoor space with a pet rabbit and dog, and various other critters attracted to the garden ambience, such as bees, hummingbirds, lizards, praying mantises, butterflies and garden snakes.

“We co-exist with nature,” Fredrika Syren said. “They always say if you don’t have a snake or lizards or bees in your garden, you’re not gardening the right way.”

Neighbors have been supportive of their gardening, they said. Residents bring their yard waste for composting, while the Syrens and other gardeners trade excess produce.

The Syrens hope the book, their example and outreach encourage others to pursue zero waste.

As Fredrika Syren states in her book’s introduction, “While living zero waste has been challenging and has often required creativity, we always knew the result would be worth the hard work. I knew that reducing our waste to almost nothing would benefit the planet, but we’ve been surprised by how our zero waste lifestyle has saved us lots of money.”