‘Free sharing’ sites expand on Internet

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

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.

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.

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.

Freecycle and most of the other give-and-take groups maintain a simple system for posting messages. Members send a message either with an “offer” to give away an item or a “wanted” message asking for an item. When a transaction is completed, they alert the group that the item has been “taken” and “received.”

Often more items are being offered than being sought. But that may be changing. “I think the number of requests for items is going up. And people are not giving things away as frequently – maybe they’re holding onto them longer ... or they try to sell them on Craigslist or something like that,” says Robin Brown, co-founder of ReuseitNetwork.org. “People are also more concerned about how far they have to drive to pick up something,” says Ms. Brown, who lives in  Altamonte Springs, Fla. The give-and-take concept mostly involves trading within a local group, usually within one town.

She and four other former Freecycle volunteers founded Reuseit about a year ago in an effort to have more local autonomy. Reuseit now has nearly 300 member groups. “We had some differences of opinion on the management and direction” of Freecycle, Brown says, so “we decided to strike out on our own.”

So did Eric Burke, webmaster for Free­­sharing.org, another online sharing group with 250,000 to 300,000 members.

Mr. Burke saw how powerful the give-and-take concept can be when he moved to Anderson, S.C., and found his new backyard strewn with junk, including about 100 hard hats left by the local power company and a mobile home. He listed everything for free online. “I said ‘come and get it,’” he says. “Within six months nearly everything was gone.”

The hard hats were taken by a local teacher for an art class. Car seats and old tires disappeared. “All the aluminum went first, because that’s easily scrap­­­pable,” Burke says. “The I-beams from the mobile home got hauled off, and a guy built a barn out of them.

“It ended up clearing my backyard. It benefitted 50 or 60 people who came through and picked what they wanted. And it kept a certain amount of stuff out of the landfill as well.”

Most give-and-take groups can be used by charities as a way to ask for items they need. The large Freecycle group in Boston, with more than 11,000 members (London is the world’s largest, with 40,000 members) asks charities to list themselves in a separate part of the website from individual requests, says Mike Martell, who oversees the group along with a “co-owner” and five “moderators,” all part-time volunteers.

Beal says he hopes a revised Freecycle website, which he plans to have up and running by the end of the year, will be able to highlight requests from charities, as well as contain other helpful new features. In a quick poll of his local Tucson, Ariz., Freecycle group, Beal found about 90 charities who were making use of the site.

What amazes some observers is that most of the time the number of items offered exceeds the number being requested. To Beal, that’s “a life-affirming thing. The fact that Freecycle works means that we as [humans] are basically good and giving. Otherwise it would just be a greedy free-for-all where everyone is trying to get something for nothing.”

• To find a Freecycle or other free-sharing group near you, go to finder.overcycle.com.

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