Lynn Marquise of Albany, N.Y., had a broken car sitting in her driveway. It quit running after she'd spent $1,500 on it in the previous six months, and she'd given up on it. "It was just a headache to me," she says. In most cases this would mean the car was headed for the junkyard. But Marquise had just joined a local Freecycle, a listserv that allows people to post things they want to give away. She sent a message about her car one evening, and went out to dinner. When she returned, she had 117 responses. When she checked with the new owner recently, he said he'd successfully gotten it running. "I was happy that I was able to help someone out!" says Marquise.
Ever since the environmental movement began promoting the slogan "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," there has been a peanut gallery pointing out that nearly all the emphasis has gone to what should be the last resort of the three: recycling. Freecycle, now an international network with more than 2,000 groups and 1.1 million members including more than 4,400 in Orlando and thousands more across Central Florida is moving at least some of the attention toward reuse. The rules are simple: only free gifting, no selling or even bartering. People post requests as well as offers, and arrange individual meetings to pass off the goods.
Deron Beal of Tuscon, Ariz., started the first freecycle listserv in 2003. The group, which coordinates all the local listservs through Freecycle.org, now estimates that it's diverting 50 tons of trash from landfills (or basements and self-storage units as the case may be), daily.
What do you find on Freecycle? Everything from baby snapping turtles to couches, church organs to wedding-ring pillows. Not every item finds a taker, but as the listserv has grown, the odds of tinkerers, handy people or collectors being on hand to take things even eBayers would never touch keeps getting higher.
Arlene Istar Lev, of Albany, started off her Freecycle experience by offering a bunch of worn old wooden cows. "I felt guilty every time I tried to throw them away, but never could actually find a use for them," she says. She was startled to get 25 requests for them. "Some were nearly pleading," she recalls.
Susan Fessler, of Edinburg, N.Y., sat tight through a whole bunch of responses to her offer of a rowboat needing repairs until she found someone she was convinced could actually do the work (he showed pictures of a bulldozer he'd reconstructed). Though most people give their offers to the first responder, there's no rule about that, and in fact Freecycle founders encourage giving preference to nonprofit groups or others who really need the item.
Freecycle as a group brings together some folks who don't always mingle: the environmentally minded, concerned about not throwing useful things away, and those whose finances make paying for some of the things offered on Freecycle an impossibility. Many a lower-income young parent or college student has furnished a baby room or first apartment through the list.
Heather Mose, of Troy, N.Y., joined Freecycle to get rid of some stuff she didn't want. But she ended up getting more than she gave away. Her sister-in-law was pregnant, "her husband was having a rough time finding steady work," and even with the larger family's help "we simply couldn't afford everything at once." She posted an item describing the situation, and was so overwhelmed with generosity that "I showed up at her baby shower with a truckload of baby stuff." And there was more that hadn't fit in the truck. "It really made a difference in my new niece's life," she says.
"My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago," says another Freecycle user, "and my dad abandoned her." Her mother moved, but "even though she had a plethora of stuff that could fill two houses, most of it was useless to her. She had loads of things she wanted to get rid of and a great need for a few things she didn't have and couldn't afford." Within a few days she found boots and 5-pound weights for physical therapy, and off-loaded everything from a juicer to scrapbooks. "The relationship `with Freecycle` has worked out greater than any I've ever had!"
It's not just the receivers who benefit. "We lost my sister-in-law to cancer at a young age," explains one Freecycler. "One of the things she wanted to learn to do was to play the keyboard. She purchased one just before she got sick. She never got the chance to face that challenge, as she had bigger ones to fight."
After the young woman died, the family didn't know what to do with the keyboard. One of the first postings her sister-in-law saw when she joined Freecycle was a church youth group looking for a keyboard. "Being Christians, we decided that the keyboard had found a home," she says.
As with any community, Freecycle has its share of frustrations. As long as people give items reflexively to the first respondent, points out one user, it becomes very hard for most people to compete with the people who have nothing to do but sit online all day and snap up juicy offers. There are frequent admonishments to the list about showing up when you say you will, and cutting out the rude comments.
Before people meet, Freecycle posts on their own offer little windows into people's ups and downs through the lens of their stuff. There are pets whose owners have developed allergies, wedding paraphernalia from happy newlyweds and parents hoping to allow their kids a chance to play an instrument. One woman sent a request for help furnishing an apartment for her disabled brother who was moving out on his own for the first time.
"I have 14 cans of Ensure Plus in various flavors that I don't want to throw out. My grandson used to drink these when he first came to us because he was so malnourished," reads one post. "I have 8 unopened cases of Peptamen 1.5 … This is for people on tubal feedings. Can anyone use it?" reads another.
On Freecycle, the answer is probably yes.