The new junkyard: It's online and free
Ask Deron Beal or Albert Kaufman, and they'll tell you there's a giving revolution emerging in several American cities.
Call it junkyard recycling.
With Mr. Beal's help, Mr. Kaufman recently launched a Portland, Ore., e-mail list serve called Freecycle.com. It's one of several resources springing up to help consumers get rid of goods that don't deserve to be thrown away, or locate things they'd like to have but would prefer not to pay for.
All Freecycle members have to do is join the Yahoo list serve and post a message about items wanted or items available. Within days givers are likely to hear from someone who sees their trash as treasure. The service and all items are free.
More than 1,000 Portland residents have joined since the service was launched a month ago, giving away everything from cardboard boxes to crockpots to beds. And it's growing.
"I'm pretty psyched and have a big network of friends who tell their friends," says Kaufman, who is not paid.
Another thriving online "reuse" service is Twincitiesfreemarket.com, operated by Eureka Recycling in St. Paul, Minn.
There's no guarantee, however, of quick success. There are more languishing networks listed at the Freecycle home page (www.freecycle.org) than there are burgeoning groups. And Beal is trying to raise funds to build a stand-alone website. Another service, 2good2toss, funded by the state of Washignton, may be faltering because items are not always free, and the site lacks a sense of community.
Beal, who works for RISE, a nonprofit organization that operates the recycling program in Tucson, Ariz., came up with the idea for Freecycle last May.
He started the first-ever Freecycle list serve in Tucson. At the time he was spending too many hours on the phone trying to give away used office furniture that was in surplus because of growing recycling efforts. So he set up a list serve on Yahoo.com.
"I just sent the information out to my friends and 10 to 15 nonprofits and said, 'Spread the word,' " he recalls. "You get free stuff, and you get to give away the junk in your garage."
Word of mouth and a newspaper article generated 1,100 members for Freecycle Tucson in early October.
A key to the service's success: The list serve moderator monitors postings in a friendly, humorous tone.
Under Beal's light hand, Freecycle has developed a short set of rules after a series of online discussions about whether all items should be free and if political notices could be posted. The decision: All items must be free, political messages are taboo, and spam is forbidden. Two violations and you're off the list.
"The moderator is really important. They set the tone," Beal says. "All you need to do ... is remind someone every once in a while to say 'wanted' in the subject line. Or if they say, 'Wanted TV also willing to pay' the moderator has to write to them and say: 'Whoops, you've got strike one of two.' But I try and keep it playful. I haven't had to kick out a single person and there have only been two spams."
Beal hopes to expand Freecycle beyond Tucson and Portland and develop a national, and even an international, movement.
There are small groups trying to form in Tokyo and Singapore, and nearly 300 people have signed up for Kansas City Freecycle in Missouri.
Twincitiesfreemarket.com, which is run by Eureka Recycling, is the oldest and probably the largest free Internet reuse site. The company operates St. Paul's recycling program and differs from the Freecycle in that it is a website rather than a list serve. Freemarket was formed in 1995, according to Alex Danovitch, Eureka's business manager.
"The problem with reuse and reduction programs has been how to measure what you don't waste," Mr. Danovitch says. "If you put a whole lot of money into waste reduction, the question is how to report back to the voters, or the city council, on the program's cost-effectiveness."
Freemarket.com's computer programming has evolved so that Eureka can report results to St. Paul and the growing number of local governments that are coming to the table to support the exchange.
"This year, 75,000 residents will make 450,000 visits and conduct 6,500 exchanges totaling over 750 tons," Danovitch says.
"It costs half as much to use the Freemarket versus disposing of [items] in a landfill or incinerator. The electronics exchanged through Freemarket cost one- third of what it costs to run a neighborhood electronics drop-off event. And Freemarket extends the useful life of the items, which means there are fewer things being disposed of."
Eureka is also working with the state of Rhode Island to develop a Freemarket website that will go online in early 2004.
"There's really a community built around this," Danovitch says.
Earlier this year Freecyclers came to the aid of a couple in need.
"We had two elderly people who didn't have insurance when part of their house burned down," Beal says. "One of the Freecycle people sent out a note saying they were getting set up at some other place and could use a bed, a couch, and other stuff.
"Within two days," he says, "they had everything they needed."