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The Wrong Stuff

Online "Freecyclers" take the cash out of trash


Published April 21, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

When I first heard about the brand-new Burlington chapter of Freecycle, a global, Internet-based network of people giving away old junk, my inner capitalist raised an objection. I had recently ransacked my house in search of unwanted inventory -- the basement was bursting with rusty skis, chipped dishes and National Geographics --but I hadn't given up the idea of making a buck on it.

Friends had suggested hawking some of the stuff on eBay, but that seemed too complicated, and could easily turn me from seller to buyer. I intended to follow the example of my entrepreneurial brother, who at age 6 dragged the contents of his bedroom to the end of the driveway and held his own yard sale. But my husband shook his head. "You won't get a dime for that stuff," he announced.

Okay, well, maybe I could give a few things away. The next morning, I went to Yahoo Groups and found the bulletin board for Freecycle, an online, trash-to-treasure matchmaker. After reading about it, I signed up, starting small. "Free Olympics posters," I typed in, referring to perhaps the most worthless thing we had in the house. Emboldened, I added, "Assortment of smaller plastic and glass frames." I wasn't quite ready to relinquish that alarm clock shaped like a boat propeller that tooted every five minutes. Yet.

Within a few hours, my stingy offering had already garnered a response from Lee Butler, who ended up taking some of my frames. The Jeffersonville resident founded, and moderates, the Burlington message board. A free-stuff spirit, she came to the concept naturally. "One of my favorite things to do on a Saturday is to go to those swap sheds at transfer stations," says Butler. But finding worthy recipients for her rubbish was trickier. She was looking to unload some post-college business suits when she stumbled across Freecycle. "I thought, 'Hey, that's a wonderful idea,'" she says. "Everybody loves free stuff. And everybody also has stuff they're not using. I was really surprised there wasn't a Vermont chapter."

Following a few simple instructions on the organization's homepage, Butler established Burlington as one of the 360 cities in the Freecycle Network. Deron Beal started the project last May in Tuscon, Arizona. "My day job is working at this little recycling nonprofit... and I was seeing a lot of stuff get thrown away," he recalls. "Businesses would ask me if I wanted desks or computers and I would say, 'Yeah!' and find nonprofits to donate them to. Then I thought, 'Why don't I set up a listserv for the nonprofits which led to, 'Why don't I open it up to everyone?' It just took off." Beal likes to think he's doing his part to reduce the 230 million tons of garbage that Americans toss annually.

Although its 52,000 active givers and takers are mostly in the United States, Freecycle is also catching on in other nations, from China to Colombia. A chap in Oxford, England is looking for demijohns to make mead --is that legal? One soul in Seoul wants to get rid of a tin piggy bank. In Melbourne, they want mountain bikes.

So far, about a dozen have signed up for the Burlington site. "Right now there aren't a whole lot of people, but we're encouraging more to join," says Butler. "There are a lot of other options already here, like Recycle North. But the benefit of Freecycle is that some of those places don't take everything -- items that are broken or from the yard, like lumber. Also, with Freecycle, you know right off the bat if something's available. You don't have to drive somewhere and hope what you are looking for is there."

And unlike print advertisements for free stuff, Freecycle works at the speed of your bandwidth. Etiquette dictates that users include the words "offer, taken and wanted" in their subject lines. This allows viewers, and those who select instant email alerts, to scan the postings quickly and to avoid sending unnecessary inquiries. Ideally, each message includes the location of the object, so that a St. Albans resident, for example, can decide whether the free box of Q-tips in Charlotte is worth the drive.

Out of curiosity, I signed on as a member of the biggest group, Freecycle Portland, which brings together 4500 stuff-swapping Oregonians. Big mistake. My e-mail box began dinging every 10 minutes, announcing "approx. 15 to 20 ice trays" and "two direct tv small satellite dishes." There were Power Puff shoes in size three, fiberglass ripple roofing sheets and a circa-1991 poster of Kurt Browning standing with a horse in front of a mountain landscape. Hey, and I thought my posters were lame.

The cardinal rule of Freecycling is that everything posted must be free, which creates a seemingly endless list of possibilities. Old socks with holes, a Commodore 64 or the dried corsage from your high school prom? Hey, somebody might want it. When my husband made an unflattering comment about me, I threatened to post him on Freecycle. One Portland couple used the service to find a justice of the peace. "We found someone to marry us! What a great community!" they raved.

Beal had a similar experience. He responded to a guy offering a George Foreman grill. "It turns out he lives just three blocks from me, on my street," Beal explains. "I walked down there, and he raises chickens. He said, 'You need some eggs?' and gave me half-dozen eggs! So I get a grill, I get to meet a neighbor and I get six eggs!"

Not everything flies on Freecycle, however. The network forbids politics, spam and money on its message boards, and asks users to keep it "legal & appropriate for all ages." The inquiry about a 36DD bra (from a broke boob-job recipient) might be pushing it. Each group establishes its own boundaries; among the restricted items in Rochester, N.Y. are plants, seeds, electronics, alcohol and dead animals. Live animals, on the other hand, are acceptable; many Freecyclers use the system to find loving homes for their pets.

The network is also a natural catchall for families relocating and people picking up new hobbies. When college kids move out of their dorms this spring, Butler hopes they'll take advantage of Freecycle to keep clutter off the sidewalks. "I'm hoping that we can recruit a good number of students in the area," says Butler. "They leave behind a lot of sofas on the side of the road, and big piles of very usable stuff out by the dumpsters."

Our house probably doesn't need any of that stuff, but I'm hoping to score some free window boxes. And maybe I could bring myself to cast off that propeller-shaped alarm clock; there are lots of boaters around Burlington, right? I'm beginning to see my basement in a whole new light.