More Than 9 Million People Use Freecycle Instead of Buying New

Yves here. I am such a Yankee. I hate throwing anything out that is still even sort of usable (hence my antique mobile phones). This goes double for clothes, where I will wear a bit worn clothing when I run local errands, even though most of the local women bother wearing at least mildly upmarket attrire. When I was in better shape, I could throw on nice shoes to show I was choosing to look shabby, but now I am restricted to running shoes. That is a long-winded way of saying I approve of Freecycle and resale/thrift shops, and have snagged some very good finds there.

But I mainly go shopping in my closet.

By April M. Short, an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others. Produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Our global landfills are overwhelmed, and the U.S. shows no signs of slowing its huge contribution to the trash pile-up at home and abroad. The global trash crisis is real, with 2 billion tons of trash produced per year. The U.S. recycles just around 35 percent of its trash, and sits in last place behind all other developed countries when it comes to recycling the solid waste it produces per capita, as calculated by the Waste Generation and Recycling Indexes published in 2019 by the British research firm Verisk Maplecroft.

Deron Beal has been working to curb some of that needless waste for the last 17 years via the Freecycle Network, a nonprofit, volunteer-run, free-gifting website he founded in 2003 with the mission of keeping usable things from getting tossed out. It now claims more than 9 million members around the world.

“We’re very stuff-oriented, aren’t we, in this society?” says Beal, laughing a little.

Beal says part of his original inspiration for founding Freecycle came when he lived in Germany (which tops the charts for best recycling among developed nations) and observed how well federally mandated programs worked to curb waste.

“I realized that there are things I cannot do, and that we, communally, can do together to make a huge positive difference,” he says.

Membership to the Freecycle website is free and serves to connect people with their nearest area group. The project boasts on its websitethat on average it keeps more than 1,000 tons of trash out of landfills each day, amounting to “fifteen times the height of Mt. Everest in the past year alone, when stacked in garbage trucks.”

With just two employees—Beal and a web engineer—the network runs on volunteers who moderate their local groups, and those groups exist in every major U.S. city and 110 countries worldwide.

“All this community help, pulling together, is really how we’re able to make this work,” Beal says. “We just couldn’t do it without them. We’re able to leverage this volunteer spirit in this amazing way.”

Beal notes that there are both environmental and economic reasons people join their local Freecycle groups, and that membership tends to ebb and flow based on media cycles and economic trends. After the 2009 economic downturn, for example, they saw a spike in memberships.

Freecycle Network is funded through individual donations, Google-generated ads and occasional corporate underwriters—though the network has no current corporate sponsorship. Beal says outside of encouraging volunteer moderators to send press releases to their local newspapers, he’s never done much in the way of advertising or outreach. The network’s growth has been truly grassroots—and doesn’t seem to fall along typical conservative versus progressive party lines.

Beal thinks more than anything else, the magic behind Freecycle’s continuing global growth lives in the way it makes people feel to give and receive.

“Regardless of political inclinations… it feels really good,” he says. “Giving and getting things for free, I think that’s a universal warm and fuzzy right there.”

And he says it’s exciting to him to know that it just takes one person per given area to birth a local Freecycle program.

In Portland, Oregon, that one person is Catherine Spencer-Mills, who retired from a career in IT before coming on board as the city’s sole moderator. She had been a member of Freecycle for some time when an ad for the lead moderator position popped up.

“It’s really not a lot of work, and it’s not very time consuming,” she says. “Not having a lot of money myself, having a family and kids… I like the idea of not always having to pay for things… and it’s kind of nice not putting things in the landfill if you don’t have to.”

Beal says the difference between Freecycle and other sites like Craigslist’s free stuff section is the communal aspect of the network.

“Each group is run by a local volunteer. There [are] no scammers and spammers on Freecycle,” he says. “It’s more of a family-friendly, communal environment.”

And, he says Freecycle treads the line between items that are still useful, but that a thrift store might not be able to actually sell.

Lending and Borrowing

Beal laughs a little when he thinks about the American tendency to want to own all of our own stuff. Owning something that is only going to be used once or rarely is a pretty unsustainable and impractical model compared to sharing or borrowing it.

“There’s a George Carlin skit on stuff, how we buy bigger and bigger houses to hold all our stuff, and we get storage sheds to hold all our stuff when it doesn’t fit in our houses,” he says. And, as Beal is apt to point out, all that individualized purchasing of brand-new items is what really stacks up to our global waste crisis.

Even if we were all living meticulously zero-waste lives, most of our trash problem could still exist, since municipal solid waste, or the waste produced by individual people, only makes up a part of the problem. Industrial waste (including all the materials produced to create new things via mines and factories, packaging to ship them across the world, etc.) is estimated to be a much bigger culprit. While the EPA estimated people in the U.S. produced 267.8 million tons of municipal waste in 2017, the agency put industrial waste at a staggeringly higher mark of about 7.6 billion tons per year in a 2016 report.

This reality is, in part, what inspired Beal to relaunch the website with new features that expand upon the site’s free-gifting mission. The new site will allow members to lend and borrow items within self-appointed friend circles, the idea being to encourage neighbors and friends to share some of the items they can’t find for free—rather than everyone buying their own new everything.

“So, you know, maybe I’ll start up a neighborhood tool-swapping/tool-share group where everybody can share tools with each other, or maybe people want to set up their own little book club where they share books and return them after they’ve read them, or parents of small kids who want to share or gift clothing or toys or other things, or church or school groups might share goods—whatever it is.”

Beal says he does plan to launch a tool-share in his own neighborhood, as a mini beta test of the new feature.

“The average usage life of an electric drill is 15 minutes. What we need is not a drill; we need a hole in the wall—right?” he says.

“It’s in our DNA as walking apes to share in small groups with each other, but we’ve kind of drifted a little ways away from that. It’d be great to get to that core DNA that we have and empower each other through sharing.”

Beal understands that one reason people don’t already do this is because even if you do want to share your tools with your neighbors, you might not get them back right away. They might forget or you might forget, which is why the new site will include a built-in email reminder for any borrowed item, similar to a public library system.

“[The reminder is] not optional; it just happens [automatically]. So there’s no embarrassment involved,” he says.

He adds that the idea to allow members to self-appoint their friend circles, rather than allowing community-wide borrowing, is designed to add another layer of trust to the equation.

“If it’s a complete stranger taking your drill, well, there’s a small chance that he might just walk off with it,” he says. “So you do need that small trusted core you do that sharing with.”

In addition to the lending feature, Freecycle’s new site will also add several new languages, so Freecycle will be translated in 10 languages total.

“Greek, Turkish, Romanian, Hungarian, we got you covered,” he says.

Beal’s ultimate vision is to help more people break from measuring wealth on a purely monetary basis, and bring people back to looking at real use and value.

“There’s an Oscar Wilde quote that kind of fits into all of this,” he says. “We know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing.”’

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    1. mistah charley, ph.d.

      correction noted – my recall was probably slanted because i was writing before breakfast

  1. Arizona Slim

    I know Deron Beal. Great guy. And, yes, I do use the Tucson Freecycle.

    Note to self: Dig up those ironwood tree seedlings, pot them, and offer them on Freecycle.

  2. marieann

    I used to use freecycle often, but our local one devolved into gimme,gimme.

    My hobbies are craft related(sewing,knitting) and gardening and I belong to sewing/knitting groups. I always have items to share with them and I also take items I want from the free tables.Most of our craft groups use up their bits and pieces to make items for charities eg: hats for the homeless/schoolskids/quilts for nursing homes and other organizations.
    I also share plants with these groups, and with my gardening friends and my neighbours. Other items I no longer want go to the thrift stores, I know they are not free but they are inexpensive.

    As for really old raggy clothing…..I make rags, I have a kitty that is a puker and I go through a lot of rags cleaning up after him and also the other “accidents” that come along when animals share ones life.

    My husband does the “make it work” part of the mantra, he can repair most things that break…even if it’s only using duct tape.
    And we are experts on the “do without part”

  3. Anon

    I sneak off to the thrift stores early on Sunday’s (while my friends are in church). I am amazed at the quality of clothing on the racks (expensive leather jackets: $20) and hardly used furniture that gets reduced by half after a week on the floor (deals galore). Seventy percent of the merchandise is ladies clothing; but I hear them complain about the wait for the few changing rooms. (Clothing that doesn’t fit isn’t worth it at any price, I guess.)

    Thrift shopping is an expanding experience it appears. My local “Goody’s” (Goodwill) has just completed a interior upgrade with new floor tiles, fancy racks, and bigger mirrors. I hope it’s not crowded later this Sunday morning.

  4. Jeremy Grimm

    How is Freecycle different from Craig’s List “free” category? or GoodWill? I’ve picked up a few things from Craig’s ‘free’ category but Freecycle in my area has nothing posted. The only trouble I’ve had with Craig’s List is a certain ‘flakiness’ in responding to inquiries — whether for ‘free’ or for sale items — also a remarkable fear, which I cannot understand, very like the fear that has parents setting play-dates for their kids.

  5. kw

    I used Freecycle years ago. I stopped and post on Craigslist “free”. Why? Freecycle has lots of rules and “hall monitor” telling you what you can post. “Curb alerts” and responding to emails on Craigslist do the same thing and faster, easier…. I also found charity groups which happily accept what I am giving away and resell my stuff to help my community in a more organized fashion.

  6. Olivier

    I think it’s easy to hype this sort of thing, unfortunately. I had a look at the german chapters (since I live in Germany) and most are absolutely barren, even in large cities like Düsseldorf. Many don’t even have a moderator! For comparison (since Freecycle is incorporated in AZ) I tried a few US locations, picked completely at random. Providence RI has 7 items, Buffalo NY has 55, Petaluma CA has 46 and Birmingham AL 12. So it doesn’t look like the US chapters are much more active.

    Bottom line: it may well have 9 million registered users but that’s meaningless if they don’t use the service. In my experience the “gimme” mentality is very prevalent on such forums and might be a deterrent. You don’t need to have encountered it often to be turned off for good. Maybe I have a thin skin…

    1. rosemerry

      I lived in Germany in 1973 (!) in Hamburg and they had a marvellous monthly arrangement where everyone could put out on the pavement large items eg refrigerators, bookshelves, that they no longer needed and anyone could roam around and take whatever they wanted during the night, and the rest was removed (vastly depleted so easier to cope with) the next morning by the rubbish collectors (I suppose). For those needing furniture etc this was a godsend, and also a way of getting rid of good but no longer needed items. I think it was called “spehrmuhl”; (spelling??)

      1. Carl

        “Community Cleanup Days” here in California. Used to be a great adventure, loading up the station wagon with all the stuff you might ever need for the garden or construction, like lumber, pipes, netting and even half full bags of Azomite and chicken manure. So many people patrolling the streets the night before pickup that they changed it to by arrangement only with the garbage company. :-(

    2. Olivier

      Also, online services often dissemble by never purging their rolls, which paints an overly flattering picture of their user base. And companies keep praiseworthy customer testimonies on their web sites long after said customers have turned into past customers. Almost everything online is at least a little bit fake.

  7. PressGaneyMustDie

    I’ll have to look into Freecycle. I have heard too many horror stories in my area about listing something as free on Craigslist and having respondents crawling over the “givers” property for other stuff to swipe. I’ve had a great run buying & selling stuff with Craigslist with most people being quite reasonable and only a few negative experiences. We sell our nicest used clothing on Poshmark and donate worn but clean clothing to shelters and hospitals that see a lot of homeless patients. We give some things to Goodwill but are wary of it’s for-profit-for-execs-non-profit-business-model.

    1. Robert Hahl

      Somehow Goodwill has driven The Salvation Army out of people’s consciousness. I had lots of books to give away but Goodwill didn’t want more than 10 at a time. The Salvation Army’s only condition was, they didn’t want encyclopedias. Luckily someone reminded me they still exist.

  8. Tom Bradford

    My wife does a voluntary few hours a week at a local charity shop. There she heard the story of the ‘regulars’ who would trawl the towns charity shops for bargains – which was most of the stuff as, being donations, was 100% profit for the charity and could be generously priced for turn-over – and which would then appear on an on-line auction site at a 10 -25% mark up.

    I don’t know. The charity did get the price it asked which went to its cause, and needs the turn-over to avoid a build-up of donated stuff in its back room. The ‘regulars’ I suppose were just being entrepreneurial, and in a way were supporting the charity while the original donors were rid of the stuff they couldn’t be bothered to try to sell on-line themselves to get best price and had benefited the charity to some extent. In a sense everybody wins, but it still somehow seems ‘wrong’.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I would guess the ‘regulars’ are either making their rounds as a hobby of sorts — or they need the extra income — or a little of both. In any case, they make items available to people who prefer not to or lack the time to cruise around checking local charity shops, and many of these sorts of people have more money they can spend than the ‘regulars’. You can view the ‘regulars’ as doing a service for people with more money than time.

      As you point out the charity shop must make the best use of its space as the quantity and quality of the items they receive varies and as the local demand varies. The ‘regular’ provides a service to the charity shops in helping them manage their space and inventory.

      I believe everybody wins and there is no reason to feel that something is ‘wrong’. A useful or desirable service should receive payment.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      If these regulars vacuum up all kinds of good stuff so fast and so thoroughly that poor people who can only afford the charity shop price can never find what they need or want or might like to have . . . . then a zone of wrongness is being approached.

      As long as that is not consistently happening to people who depend on charity shops for basic survival, then I see no inherent wrongness. I see in fact a faster re-circulation of useable items out of the donorsphere back into useful life.

      1. Tom Bradford

        I think this is the ‘wrongness’ that disturbs me. The regulars have the time to do the rounds and only go for the ‘good’ stuff. The shop my wife works out at sometimes gets electronics – perfectly good TVs, laptops, etc. that are being replaced with something newer or flashier – which I would imagine is the stuff the regulars snap up and look to make a profit on. Yet these are the very things those on a tight budget are most in need of as cheaply as possible.

        Perhaps the problem is that we have a dichotomy – the charity shop is only concerned with raising money for its charity while I’m looking at it from a different direction, that of the wider benefit to society, charity in a broader sense.

        1. KiWeTO

          Charity is giving it away without any further strings (judgment) attached. Else you have yet to truly give it away.

          By feeling that such “regulars” practices’ as being wrong, that is still seeking a level of moral superiority. They spent their time (perhaps they are wealthy enough to have such free time) to go around and do the scrounging arbitrage. There are little benefits from economies of scale to their efforts. They aren’t going to become as wealthy as Bezos doing that trading.

          Perhaps the truly needy have no time to go around the charity shops. So they then choose to exchange time for the profit margin the arbitrageur earns selling the donated thing. Who loses out then? Is profit such a dirty word? Or a misunderstanding of the concept of profit?

          Seeing charity as not going to the most deserving recipient, well, who amongst all can truly determine “most deserving”? Even communism couldn’t. Not that I wish to attack the original post on the sense of “wrong”, but perhaps some reflecting on why they come to see it as wrong might go better towards a more understanding world.

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          If the regulars are near-poor themselves, and high-grading the charity shop offerings to sell for some more money than they paid for them is the only way they can monetize their investable time and effort into their own survival money for paying their own bills for things which only money can buy; then there is no wrongness at all.

          And then too also, if someone really gives something away to a charity shop, it is not their bussiness who or what buys it past that point. If the charity shop wishes to make it the charity shop’s bussiness as to whether the “truly needy deserving poor” get first opportunity to buy the good stuff, the charity shop can designate a day or time of day(s) when new stuff first gets put out and can then forbid “recognized regulars” from buying anything from the “new stuff zone” for long enough to give the “deserving poor” a fair chance to buy it.

          I know that I resented seeing local book-dealers showing up fast to buy bunches of books from library book sales, but that is part of how they made their living and it did its part in getting books recycled in a higher better way than getting ground up for paper.

      2. HotFlash

        A neighbour of mine supplements her pension — not princely — by buying from Sally Ann (Salvation Army) and resellilng. She has a background in fashion and picks up designer etc clothing, fixes it up if necessary (hand wash, dry clean, mend, and iron. She’s got tools of the trade including a steam puffer. She then sells it to local ‘vintage’ shops, of which there are 4 or 5 within easy walking distance. So, yes, she is making a little money but her expertise with selection and preparation are decidedly ‘value added’. And the more utilitarian stuff is still available for us non-clotheshorses at reasonable prices.

        A friend of a friend makes his frugal living as a book scout. He combs thrift and used book stores for rare books and has the contacts to sell them. Again, it is his expertise and contacts that make the value.

        Can’t see that this activity is problematic.

  9. Carl

    “I will wear a bit worn clothing when I run local errands, even though most of the local women bother wearing at least mildly upmarket attrire.”
    Like the three hundred dollar pants with artful worn out spots in the knees and cuffs that the Tesla Class wear around here?

    Whenever you throw something out that could be repaired, put it on top of the garbage can instead of inside. Tape a note to it describing any problems. Usually it’s gone before the truck arrives. Same thing with unwanted items you don’t want to lug to the thrift store, or which they might not accept.

  10. Cynical Engineer

    Freecycle seems to have been the victim of some unfortunate politics. When I first came across it seven or eight years ago, there were strong local email mailing lists on Yahoo Groups serving Southern New Hampshire. Those were nominally operating under the Freecycle umbrella, but were locally administered by volunteers.

    About two years ago, the people running the website implemented a messaging board on the website and contacted all the local groups and demanded that they move to the messaging as a condition of continuing to use the “Freecycle” name. Very heavy-handed, and the volunteers who were running the local groups suggested that the people would be welcome to take a long walk off a short pier. The local groups continued to do well until Yahoo shut Groups down. At least in my area, it hasn’t recovered yet.

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