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‘Free sharing’ sites expand on Internet

One person’s trash is truly another’s treasure – even chunks of broken concrete.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 2008

Darci Cheyneis (l.) received her wedding dress from Alexandra Mcqueen (r.) in Toronto through the online community Freecycle.org. Rules state that no money can change hands.

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Holliston, Mass.

A few years back, Deron Beal worked for a recycling organization in Tucson, Ariz. He’d drive an old pickup truck around to other nonprofit groups, and say, “I found this old desk or this computer. Can you guys use it? I spent [most of my] time calling or driving around,” he says.

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That changed on May 1, 2003, when he sent off an e-mail to about 30 friends and a handful of nonprofit groups. Those who needed something should just e-mail everyone else. Those who had something to give away could tell the others about it, too. Freecycle.org was born.

Today the free online give-and-take organization has more than 5 million members in 4,500 local groups in 85 countries. It’s by far the largest, but far from the only, organization dedicated to using the Internet to match up people who need something with people who are happy to part with it.

While the rules governing how swaps are made and what kinds of things may be offered may vary from group to group, one thing is constant: Everything is free. No money changes hands. On Free­cycle.org, direct “I’ll swap you this for that” exchanges are not allowed. Goods must be freely offered, no strings attached.

What can be posted on these free give-and-take websites? Nothing illegal, of course, and items must be “family friendly” – no pornography, no alcohol, no tobacco, no weapons, and no drugs, including medicines and vitamins. Those who abuse the policy get one warning. A second offense results in banishment.

Beyond those practical limitations, the variety of items can be astounding: clothes, furniture, toys, computers and other electronics, and baby items are popular. But so are more unusual items from hair dye to manure to pieces of broken concrete (euphemistically referred to as “urbanite”).

“Waste not, want not” and “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” have found new life online.

The original goal of Freecycle.org was ecological, Mr. Beal says. By reusing items, fewer new goods need to be produced, saving energy and raw materials. “We always try to promote reuse first over recycling,” says Trey Granger, a spokesman for Earth911.com, a website based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that provides information on local recycling. “That would always be the preferable option.”

Beal calculates that Freecyclers keep about 500 tons of stuff out of land­­fills every day. In a year, he calculates, that’s equivalent to a stack of full garbage trucks five times the height of Mt. Everest.

But today, say Beal and others involved in online give-and-take sites, people are also looking harder for ways to stretch dollars. Freecycle.org continues to grow by 10,000 to 15,000 members per week, Beal says. “I think that’s in large part a reflection of the economy right now.”

“I think people are reusing their things and not going out and buying new things,” says Linda Carrabba, who runs a local Freecycle group in Holliston, Mass., about 25 miles west of Boston. Her group, with about 1,000 members, is adding new ones, she says, and “It’s definitely more active. Way more active.”

Lately she’s seen an upswing in women requesting clothing that could be worn in an office. “It sounds like women going back into the workforce looking for business attire,” she says.

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