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Recycling the Unrecyclables

One person's trash is another's treasure

What do computer monitors, a flag of Denmark and beverage coasters depicting scenes of national parks have to do with each other? They're all free. These items were recently posted on Freecycle as being offered in Chicago.

What is Freecycle?

Think of it as orderly recycling or an online system to transfer things that one person doesn't want, but someone else might love. It's a bit like a virtual yard sale, but everything is free.

"One person's trash is another person's treasure," says Amy Lund, a Freecycle member and an editor who lives on Chicago's North Side.

By logging onto freecycle.org, prospective members can look for groups close to their home. Registration requires providing an email address and a Zip code and then joining a local group through yahoo.com. Users must have a Yahoo address to sign on and must be approved by a group moderator.

Members post items they are offering or items they want. Once members have made an agreement about the transfer of an item via emails, another post goes out to members letting them know it's no longer available.

Posts are supposed to be polite and free of politics, advertising and spam. Items offered must be tangible, and members can't Freecycle pets or themselves, according to the rules.

Indeed, while Freecycle might seem to have a simple structure, its goals are lofty.

Supporters say that by picking up items that others have already used --instead of buying the same thing over again--they're not just saving money, but they're also helping protect the planet.

According to 2004 figures from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, 52 active landfills in the state reported receiving a total of almost 53.8 million gate cubic yards (16.3 million gate tons) of waste.

"I really hate throwing away anything that is still usable," says Lund, who adds that since joining in 2005, she has yet to get anything from the site. Her first offered item was a thermostat, which was quickly scooped up by another member.

Lund says that for some items she offers, she doubts whether anyone will want them. She recalls that a 2002 Farmer's Almanac went unclaimed, but someone else took her promotional tins from Internet access provider America Online.

"You never know what people want or need until you ask," Lund says. "I was thrilled to find Freecycle because it lets me find good homes for my things which I no longer need but others might value."

Originating in Tucson, Ariz., Freecycle was started about four years ago and is the best-known group in a movement that is looking at new, more direct ways to recycle goods.

In Tucson, organizers believed that by promoting waste reduction in the downtown area they could keep landfills from taking over the desert land.

The network's website now lists nearly 4,000 community groups across the globe, with a combined 3.2 million members.

About 180 Freecycle groups are listed for Illinois alone, and two dozen of those groups each boast more than 1,000 members.

The Freecycle group for the city of Chicago lists more than 10,000 members, while many separate groups exist for area suburbs.

Conni Sowin, a stay-at-home mother in north suburban Wadsworth, likes the concept so much that she helps moderate a few Freecycle groups in Lake County. Like Lund, Sowin says she tends to give a lot more things than she gets.

"My goal is to de-clutter my home," Sowin says, "but I did accept many bags of acorns to feed the squirrels."

By and large, those involved in Freecycle are friendly, community-minded people, Sowin notes. According to members, while the forum mainly resides on the Internet, it does serve to strengthen communities. Individual Freecycle groups keep their scope very local, as items should be within a reasonable drive. And in those pick-ups and drop-offs, there are opportunities to meet.

Sowin says her group has gathered during warmer months to hold "Free4Alls."

The one-day events are held in a volunteer's yard and look like a yard sale, Sowin says. "But the catch was that everything was free. Members from several Freecycle groups brought anything and everything that they no longer wanted or needed. And anyone was welcome to come and take anything and everything that they wanted."

It was fun to meet with other members in person, Sowin adds. "And the children were having a ball, since there are always toys, movies and clothes for them, too."

Published: May 28, 2007
Issue: Summer 2007 Urban Living