Grassroots Giving

By Chandra Orr

October 3, 2008 5 min read


The Freecycle Network has become an Internet phenomenon

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

It all started with one innocuous e-mail.

Deron Beal just wanted to empty a warehouse of excess charity donations without overwhelming the local landfill.

Now, with 5.7 million members in more than 75 countries, The Freecycle Network is one of the largest green grassroots movements in the world. Members exchange household items, electronics, clothing and more in an effort to keep useful products in circulation and out of the trash -- and it's all free.

The premise of The Freecycle Network is simple. One man's trash is another man's treasure. If you don't want it, chances are someone else does. The only catch: It must be free and it must be local. Items are never sold or bartered and never mailed to distant locations. Think of it as a digital curbside.

As founder and executive director, Beal has had a big hand in transforming the group into an award-winning nonprofit that the Environmental Protection Agency called, "a revolution in reuse," but it all started with that one e-mail.

In 2003, while working with a local nonprofit in Tucson, Ariz., Beal routinely collected donations, snagged still-useful items from curbsides and rescued discarded treasures from recycle bins, hoping that the charities' disadvantaged workers might be able to use the unwanted furniture, appliances and house wares in their new apartments.

"We were the Sanford and Son of downtown Tucson, driving around in a pickup truck, collecting more stuff than we could possibly use," he said. "We couldn't give the items away quick enough. I had to find a way to get rid of it before it filled the whole warehouse."

So he sent out an e-mail to a few friends and a handful of non-profits. The response was overwhelming. Within six weeks, the informal e-mail list had between 600 and 800 members, all giving away -- and getting -- items for free.

"When we saw how successful it continued to be in Tucson, we started instructing other communities on how to start their own group, and it just kept growing and growing," Beal said.

From outdated electronics and gently used furniture to second-hand clothing and baby items, members exchange just about anything and everything under the sun. One member even posted a historic home to the site with one caveat: The recipient had to haul it off site to make way for a new development.

Beal is careful to emphasize that not all freebies are as lavish. Offers of old magazines, unused home improvement supplies, empty canning jars and toys are more common than postings for valuable real estate -- but it's the appeal of free items that hooks most members.

And it's a powerful lure. Worldwide, the volunteer-run group boasts between 30,000 and 40,000 new members per week.

"A lot of people join because it's free -- you get something for nothing -- but the first time they give something away it's a paradigm shift," Beal said. "It's an 'aha' moment when you have someone thanking you profusely for something you didn't have to drag off to a landfill."

For Beal, keeping possessions going is what counts. "Anything you can do to keep an item in circulation and out of a landfill is a good deed done," he said.

In fact, as a collective, members keep 500 tons of trash out of landfills each day. Stack all those freebies in garbage trucks and you'd have a tower of would-be trash that's five times the height of Mt. Everest.

"Recycling is a great thing to do, but even if all of us recycled all we can as consumers, 98 percent of the waste is still out there," Beal said. "Recycling is great, but reusing is 20 times better."

With reusing, it means that all the extra energy spent to create something new is saved. "You have to consider what's going into making all those new products," he explained.

Save a 100-pound sofa from the landfill, for example, and you also save one ton of raw materials from being used in the production of a new couch. It's not hard to see why second-hand makes sense.

You don't have to be an eco-warrior to join The Freecycle Network. Membership is free and open to anyone. Visit and enter your city and state to be connected with the nearest local chapter. Sign up for the corresponding Yahoo! Group to receive daily digests with dozens of offers and requests for free items.

NOTE: From The Freecycle Network pressroom: FREECYCLE is a trademark-protected term. Only use as an adjective (Freecycle group), never as a noun, verb or morphed into another word (freecycler, freecycling, freecycle the couch).

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