Freecycle network grows globally in bad economy


With those three words, Deron Beal of Tucson, Ariz., helped move the yard sale online, only with no money changing hands.

Beal is the founder of The Freecycle Network, or It's a grassroots gifting network that — thanks to the sour economy and a growing commitment to the environment — has transformed into a global movement of millions offering, wanting and taking all manner of stuff.

Staffed by volunteer moderators and loosely overseen by Beal, Freecycle aims to let you share your old TVs, clothes, broken blenders, tire chains and moving boxes with people nearby, using e-mail groups at Yahoo! and on the network's website.

There are nearly 5,000 Freecycle groups with about 9 million members in more than 70 countries. Not bad for a guy who was simply trying to keep perfectly good stuff out of landfills, or find homes for stuff charities don't take, in his own community.

"It's a win, win, win, win," Beal said. "Everybody feels good."

Freecycle can be effortless for people who can leave their old magazines, kitchenware or larger items on a porch for pick up, but it can generate a lot of e-mail and suck up more time in larger locales as giver and taker try to untangle their schedules and decide where and when to make an exchange.

There's no real navigation at Freecycle. You sign up, wait in some cases to be approved by a moderator, and decide whether to take individual e-mails, daily digests of offerings or read the list online only.

Beal got the idea for Freecycle while working as a recycling coordinator for a nonprofit in Tucson. The organization offered jobs to men in shelters to do concierge recycling by picking up things like old computers and office tables at shops, restaurants and other companies, then trying to find homes for them at other nonprofits.

"We had this old beat-up pickup truck, and would load up the pickup and drive from one nonprofit to the next to see who could use this stuff. It was crazy, and taking way too much work to find new homes for perfectly good stuff," he said. "So I set up an e-mail group, where anybody interested could join and they could pick it up themselves."

Beal clearly struck a nerve. On the New York list, in e-mail after e-mail, posters are following the network's instructions and carefully writing subject fields providing their locations and the words "offer," ''wanted" and — hopefully — "taken" for things like "2 very broken laptops: Bronx Morris Park and Hering" or "Kraft Grated Romano Cheese (East Harlem)."

And there's the recent: "OFFER: 21" Sony Trinitron TV - UWS," for Manhattan's Upper West Side, in an e-mail that promises the set is in "fine working condition. Picture quality is excellent."

Beds, garment bags, hangers, aquarium pumps, coffee makers, bicycles, toys, cribs, toasters, those paper wrappers for coins, air purifiers — the variety is endless. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. Some of it goes quickly and some might not go at all.

Alexandria Tristram, 42, in Manhattan had no luck with a box of old computer cables during her first attempt at freecycling, thinking "someone who tinkers with old computer parts will want it." She ended up recycling them herself.

Donna Goodhue, a moderator of the Freecycle group in St. Johnsbury, Vt., got involved in 2004 after seeing a TV news story about the network. At the time, there was a Vermont group near Burlington, but none in her area.

While browsing through the list of a nearby county about three years ago, Goodhue found a car that didn't run, at a time when she really needed one.

"My son drove over and got it. We boosted the battery and it started right up. It needed brakes and the sun roof leaked, so I would drive down the road with this umbrella open in my car when it rained. I didn't have a car at the time. It got me to work for eight months and it cost about $300 to fix the brakes."

It was a little black Saturn that she traded in for a second-hand Mercury when the time came for a new car, she said.

Other finds for Goodhue: a nearly brand-new sewing machine, when somebody upgraded to a digital model. "And my son got an 18-foot boat. It was somebody in New York, because the seat cushions were ripped and they didn't want to bother repairing them. He drove there and got it. They just didn't want it anymore."

That would be the point, Beal noted.

While some people never get rid of their stuff, "If you post an item today you'll usually have 10 responses within a minute" on any given list, he said.

Beal encourages people to wait a day before choosing a recipient to be fair to those who don't hover over e-mail moment to moment. He also thinks it's nice when people "pick their stories," seeing how the giftee approaches the moneyless transaction.

Are they brusque, businesslike, friendly? Do they plan to distribute your bag of clothes to homeless shelters?

"Pick the story you like best," he said. "'My son's going off to college.' 'We're helping with a nonprofit and could use that bed.' It's just people helping people."