Article Women & Money

Free to a good home: saving cash while saving the environment

A Chinese student, an elderly English gentlemen, a young Indian professional and a Caribbean mother and son all knocked on my door. I didn’t know any of them, and they didn’t know each other. We all met through a simple yet remarkable idea: the Freecycle Network.

“I came by tube”, said the petite Chinese exchange student when I opened the door of our sixth-floor apartment in west London. I must have looked a bit puzzled, because straightaway she added: “I hope that works?” Five minutes later she was pulling the heavy, extra-large office chair along the corridor. Her head was barely visible from behind the chair. I knew it would just about fit in the tiny elevator if she actually sat on it while inside the lift, but I had no idea how she would manage to get it up the station stairs and across the tube, all the way to the other side of town.

She’d replied to my first-ever ad on Freecycle, which I had posted earlier that day. I had read about it in a news article and wondered if it really worked. On the surface, it is nothing more than a rather basic-looking website with two bright green buttons, simply saying “search posts” and “make a new post”. I clicked the latter, took a picture of the massive and unwanted chair in my office and posted it up. “For immediate collection,” I wrote. “Large and heavy, but in good condition.”

I had been wondering how on earth to get rid of the chair, which was way too big and unmovable for me (it was specifically designed for people with serious obesity, I found out later from the office I’d initially got it from myself). I needn’t have worried. Within minutes of posting the ad, responses started to come in and I quickly had to take it down in order to stop the requests.

Freecycle was founded in Tucson, Arizona, in 2003. It started as an email group for people in the local area to advertise goods they needed or no longer needed. The idea caught on and the Freecycle concept spread to more than 85 countries, with more than 5,000 local neighbourhood groups and 7m members worldwide. Groups are run online by volunteer moderators and the global network operates on a not-for-profit basis. To its own acclaim, the network combined saves more than 500 tonnes of goods a day from ending up in rubbish piles.

Dubbed by media outlets as “freeBay”, the network has often been described merely as a sort of web shop where the price for everything is zero. But, as the organisation itself likes to point out: “it is not a place to just go get free stuff for nothing. It is a place to give or receive what you have and don’t need or what you need and don’t have - a free cycle of giving which keeps stuff out of landfills.”

After the Chinese student, came a soft-spoken elderly man who was in need of blinds for his office. I happened to have found a brand new one, still in the box, when clearing out years’ worth of dust-collecting stuff from underneath the bed. I couldn’t even remember how it ever ended up there, but either way it didn’t fit any of our windows, I definitely had no receipt to bring it back to the DIY shop, so I was more than happy for the friendly neighbour to take it.

Within minutes, the intercom buzzer rang again. This time it was a trendy-looking Indian working professional in his 20s. He had been quick to reply to my next ad, listing my boyfriend’s suit carrier bag. Again, brand new and of a quality brand, but he had never ever used it since he bought it a decade ago. When I asked him why not, he simply said that he always wears his suit on business trips and never goes so long that he needs to bring a second one. It’s just that he didn’t know that when he first got a suit-wearing job, so he acquired the bag in a panic-buy moment. It came from underneath the same bed and was covered in the same amount of dust as the blind. We got the vacuum cleaner out and within minutes it looked like new. The guy at the door couldn’t look more chuffed when I handed it to him.

The last call of the evening was a Caribbean mother, who’d sent her son upstairs to pick up the items she was after: a pair of wood-and-steel kitchen chairs. One was covered in paint splashes, which I’d written in the ad, but that didn’t bother her. She thanked me three times by email afterwards and we both agreed that Freecycle was great for everyone involved; the giver doesn’t have to bother getting their items disposed of otherwise and the receiver gets something they need nearby and at no cost.

What struck me the most after the whole experience was the happy feeling of connecting with neighbours and the power of community spirit while promoting environmental sustainability.

Yesterday, I was looking for some moving boxes. I was about to press the “order” button on a web shop when I remembered Freecycle. It was full of perfectly fine reused ones. I shall be knocking on my neighbours’ doors soon, too.

Photo: Marcus Quigmire / Creative Commons

This article is the latest instalment of Danielle Batist’s “Someone I met” series.

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