Maybe you've heard something about our faltering economy—perhaps a buried newspaper blurb about rising gas prices or a quick mention of an increase in home foreclosures on the radio. Yep, times are tough, and more and more people are turning to freebies for their day-to-day needs.
For the cash-strapped, the Internet is the land of the free. And these days, more middle-class Americans are going online to find the ultimate bargain.
One place they're looking is Freecycle, a nonprofit organization that helps people find homes for their unwanted stuff other than the local landfill.
Freecycle was started in May 2003 in Tucson, Ariz., by Deron Beal. At the time, he was working at a small nonprofit, recycling items for area businesses. The organization ended up with more items than it could get rid of, and rather than throw it all away, Beal sent out an e-mail to a handful of people offering the items for free, and the Freecycle Network was born.
The concept has since spread to more than 75 countries, hosting nearly 5,000 groups with more than 5 million members. The web-based network uses localized Yahoo Groups mailing lists, run by volunteer moderators, to connect members looking to unload their stuff with others who want to pick it up. Prospective members of San Diego Freecycle have to provide a valid e-mail address and a reason for wanting to join. The local group, which began in October 2003 with 300 signups, now has about 16,000 members.
It's like the free listings on craigslist, only crunchier.
The idea sprang from Beal's desire to keep serviceable items out of landfills. Worldwide, Freecycle estimates that it keeps more than 400 tons of stuff from going to landfills every day. The amount of items gifted in a year, the group claims, would be more than four times the height of Mount Everest when stacked in garbage trucks.
Abstract calculations aside, on a recent day on the local site, 41 items were offered and four were requested. Offered goods included a four-person Jacuzzi (“will need to be cleaned”), an 18-speed purple mountain bike, a large doghouse (“just needs to be hosed off”) and practically new rollerblades in ladies' size 8 (“monogrammed w/name Renee”)—most were gone within an hour.
“It's all eco-consciousness. It keeps things out of the landfills and also goes to people who can use it,” said BK, an active local member who didn't want to reveal her full name because she offers and receives items on Freecycle regularly and likes to keep a low personal profile. “I feel like I'm helping my community by helping [other people], providing what they need. And I'm also helping my environment by not throwing something away that could be used by someone else.”
BK, who discovered the site recently in an environmental magazine, used it to trade up on her bedroom furniture.“The biggest thing I got was a whole brand-new cherry wood bedroom set—a four-poster bed, dresser, night stand, chest of drawers,” she said. “And as a result, I gave away all my stuff. I gave away three dressers, a nightstand, bed, bed frame, under-bed storage, risers and lots of bags of clothes.
“I upgraded my bedroom furniture with a practically brand-new furniture set.”
There are rules intended to discourage people who might pick up free items only to turn around and sell them elsewhere, which violates the spirit of Freecycle.
All items must be completely free, legal and appropriate for all ages. There's no politicking, proselytizing, advertising, spamming, flaming or offering your own personal services. You must limit your “wanted” ads to one a week, and you're asked to self-monitor to balance out your request and offer posts. Freecycle etiquette calls on members to “Be nice.”
Moderators reserve the right to revoke membership from anyone who doesn't adhere to that last guideline.
“Releasing and acquiring items seems to turn on some very strange buttons for a small minority of people,” said local site moderator Nola, who asked that her last name be withheld since she has to deal with that small minority.
“We ask that members give items as well as ask for items—and those who don't want to do that get irate [because] we won't publish their wanted ads after wanted ads after wanted ads. We feel we need to keep a balance, to maintain a group [that] people want to subscribe to.”
These grassroots organizations don't consider themselves charities; rather, they view their work as a means of community building. They operate on the belief that scarcity is a myth—that there's enough stuff to go around for everyone. Like Freecycle, environmental stewardship is often a motivating factor.
“We are in a state of ecological despair,” BK said. “Rainforests are disappearing and becoming desert, we're running out of water, our air is polluted, there's a global food shortage, the price of gas is astronomical. People are struggling, and at the same time becoming more and more aware of our environmental struggles. I think if you want to attribute [the success of Freecycle], I'd say a raise in global consciousness.”