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One person's junk

Freecycle is like an ecologically conscious e-Bay with a catch. Kerry Campbell finds out that money is no good there.



Even though the ad was lacking in specifics, the car still sounded like a loser. But the price was right. “’92 Lumina, blue, 4 door, about 349,972 km,” the ad read. The poster described it as a “great driving car,” but warned it was in need of a modulator, which would run about $200 plus labour.

The cost for the car was the same as the cost for everything that goes up on the HRM Freecycle website: nothing.

Also costing nothing for surfers on the HRM Freecycle website last week ( an alarm clock, a toaster oven, some wrought-iron hooks, a hide-a-bed, a 27-inch TV with a vertical hold problem, a kite, and 12,500 sheets of creme-coloured office paper.

All this could be yours. All you need to do to join the freecyclers is sign up for Yahoo groups.

The concept of freecycling is new but simple. Instead of throwing out an article you don’t need anymore, you post it on a website. Someone lays claim to it by sending you an e-mail, and then comes and picks it up. The only cardinal rule of freecycling, which has nearly one million practitioners in 2,398 communities around the world, is that everything has to be free.

Deron Beal, who launched the world’s first freecycle group almost two years ago in Tucson, Arizona, says he can’t believe how well the idea has caught on.

“I’m flabbergasted—overwhelmed at how it’s taken off,” says Beal, who still works for a recycling firm in Tucson, while managing the website, and serving as executive director of the Freecycle network in his spare time. This he does, for now, as a volunteer, but he says the site is recruiting sponsors so he can quit his day job.

Beal sent out the world’s first freecycle notice by e-mail (he had a spare bed to get rid of) to 30 or 40 friends and some local non-profit groups back in May of 2003. That notice grew into a local group with several hundred members. Then, sister groups started up in other communities. Then things just went crazy. Today there are freecycle groups in Kenya, Nepal, Chile, China and all over North America, the UK, Germany and Australia.

Brian Grant-Paul, a web designer for Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine, launched HRM’s freecycle group in July 2004. The group has nearly 900 members, and is one of eight freecycle groups in the province.

After renovating his home, Grant-Paul had about 50 sheets of wood panelling to get rid of. He thought it was a shame to just throw it out.

“But what could I do?” he asks, “put a sign up at the end of the road, ‘Free Wood Panelling?’”

His neighbour introduced him to freecycling, and told him he would start a local group himself, if he were a little more web-savvy. Grant-Paul took on the job himself. The web part of it, he says, was actually quite easy. The site is a forum hosted by Yahoo Groups. Once he had the website up and running, he contacted to have the site approved.

Once the people from saw that the site adhered to the tenets of freecycling, they put a link on their page, and HRM Freecycle was born.

The rules are simple: There’s no swapping allowed, no money changes hands and you can’t give away pets. Everything must be appropriate for all ages and everything has to be legal.

There are three types of messages: listings for articles to give away; requests from people looking for articles; and notices when articles that have been listed have found a new home.

Grant-Paul says just about everyone has an article they feel is too good for the trash, but which they have no use for anymore. There’s a regular flow of those sorts of items travelling through the website, with about a half-dozen new postings every day, yet Grant-Paul says the site hasn’t come close yet to fulfilling its potential. He says as the group nears the 1,000-member mark, they’re just “scratching the surface” in terms of how many people they can involve, and how much stuff they can keep from ending up in the dump. “Who knows what kinds of things are being thrown out all the time that don’t have this kind of outlet?”

Tiffany Cottrell and her boyfriend George Clarke of Cole Harbour have freecycled all kinds of household items: a bread machine, a pizza griddle, a cabinet TV, and a humidifier, to name a few. The humidifier went to a woman expecting a baby. Cottrell says it was just taking up space in their home, and it felt good to see it go to someone who could use it.

“It felt a lot better than just putting it out to the curb,” she says. “It makes a lot more sense to do that than let it end up in the landfill.” The couple is renovating this year and Cottrell says they’ll be freecycling a lot. “It might be junk to us, but to someone else it might be exactly what they’re looking for.”

Grant-Paul says those sorts of good intentions are what fuel Freecycle. He’s got some fuel of his own to add to the mix. Those wood panels never did make it onto the site, but he says he has some cleaning to do this spring.

“My wife likes to hide stuff away in the attic,” he says. “She says we’ll have a yard sale someday.”

He’s got a better idea.

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