Freecycling: Waste Not, Want Not

Thanks to an international network of local volunteers, now there’s a cheap and convenient place to dispose of useful junk while promoting re-use: the Internet. is a website that links people who want to discard household belongings to people in their area who want or need them. The only rules: everything offered must be free, legal and appropriate for all ages—sorry, no bongs or porn.

Freecycling combines the age-old barter process with online convenience.
Freecycling combines the age-old barter process with online convenience.

With a single e-mail, anyone can join a freecycle group and begin posting donations or requests. A match is made—often within minutes—when someone replies, then giver and taker privately arrange the exchange. Among the most popular discards are items not usually accepted for recycling or routine pickup, including bulky furniture and appliances, and obsolete durable goods, such as baby clothes and computers.

This cyber flea market claims more than half a million members in nearly 1,700 cities and towns from Nebraska to Nepal, and is growing. List moderators note that participation cuts across all socioeconomic groups, especially in large U.S. and Canadian cities. The largest group, in Portland, Oregon, has nearly 11,000 members.

“There is this groundswell of people saying we don’t have to have all newest, latest greatest thingamajigs,” says Deron Beal of Tucson, Arizona, a self-described “tree hugger” with an MBA who created the concept in May 2003 and still oversees the site. “Clearly, we’ve tapped into a desire to reduce waste at the grassroots level.”

Beal, a part-time manager for a group that sends workers to pick up recyclables from businesses not served by the city’s curbside program, originally created the nonprofit website to streamline the task of finding charities to accept unwanted equipment. Within a month it had 200 members; when he added instructions on how to set up the system elsewhere, it quickly proliferated.

Freecycle is filling a waste-management niche, according to Wilson Hughes, waste reduction planner for the City of Tucson and the former co-director of the Garbology project at the University of Arizona. “We encourage it because it’s going to keep stuff out of the landfill,” he says.

Though no one can quantify the total volume of refuse Freecyclers have diverted, Beal’s conservative calculation is 33 tons per day. Philadelphia’s 4,400-member Phillyfreecycle tracked transactions by category and approximate weight and discovered it is keeping 15 tons of trash out of the waste stream every month. That’s no small thing considering that, according to a 2001 report from the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste, some 229 million tons of municipal solid waste is generated in the United States annually.

Last fall, Charlotte Hess, co-moderator of suburban Brevard County, Florida Freecycle, helped organize a public, freecycling “Free 4 All” to help residents (including herself) refurbish homes devastated by hurricanes. “Freecycle cuts out the middle man,” she observes.

There are still kinks to be worked out, such as purging spammers and the occasional forbidden items (like guns) from the lists. Beal also hopes to see Freecycle adopted widely in the developing world, where there is already more reuse than in the West.