Free Stuff: The Freecycle Interview

Deron Beal, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Freecycle.

Saving money by getting free stuff can amount to more than conserving dollars. By exchanging goods responsibly, you'll also save resources, energy, and possibly the spirit of someone else.

The nonprofit organization Freecycle practices the old adage, "One man's junk is another man's treasure." What started in 2003 as a way to reduce garbage in Tucson's landfills has grown to a worldwide phenomenon of goods exchange. What you don't want, you gift away. What you might need, someone else might have to give you.

The goal is not to collect more free stuff, but rather, build communities intent on consuming only what is necessary, and recycling the rest. According to a recent study, Freecycle members reduced garbage in landfills by nearly 500 tons a day in 2007, simply by sharing goods, rather than tossing them in the trash.

LoveToKnow Save talks with Deron Beal, the founder and executive director of The Freecycle Network about why the program works, and how we all benefit from the process.

Free Stuff: The Freecycle Interview

Tell us about that initial e-mail in 2003 that started the concept of Freecycle.

My wife and I were getting married at the time and had an extra bed. Goodwill doesn't take beds, none of my friends needed it and it was headed for the landfill. So, I sent out the first email announcing the founding of Freecycle and offering that bed to get the snowball rolling. And a bit of snow seemed to stick to that ball as it gathered speed!

Please give us a basic rundown of how the process works.

  1. Go to Freecycle.org.
  2. Find your local Yahoo! Group and join up.
  3. Post to the local group if you want to give something away, or respond to other people in the local group giving away something you'd like.

It's all free, nonprofit and with no strings attached. The person doing the getting is responsible for picking up the item from the home of the person doing the giving. The idea is to make it easier to give an item away than to throw it away, thus keeping good stuff out of landfills.

Since 2003, the organization has grown to more than 4 million members in 4,200 groups worldwide. Has the response surprised you?

I've been absolutely flabbergasted by the public response. We are tapping into a combo of "paying it forward" and "helping the environment." Clearly we've touched a nerve of individuals wishing to engage in positive change on a globally local basis. If we bipeds weren't basically good and giving, Freecycle wouldn't work, so don't believe all of what you see in the news!

Do We Need As Much As We Think We Do?

What do you think drives our need to buy and consume?

Well, first and foremost hunger, eh? But, seriously, beyond that, the U.S., with five percent of the global population, consumes about a quarter of all global goods. We do have to ask why. It's said that humans would need about five planets to provide the raw materials for our consumption, were we all to be as bonkers as those of us in the US are.

Yeah, we hear this and we all feel bad and what not, but I think there is something else going on. Looking in the mirror, I think my personal weakness is not simply being comfortable with who I am right now. So, I think we consume too much because we can. I think that, somehow, we feel a need to achieve, to be bigger, better, to pursue the career, to earn more, to be successful, etc. A byproduct of all that is the consumption that goes along with having to get more out of life. I think though that the key is that happiness is being comfortable in our own bodies the way we are right now.

Happiness is right there waiting for us. We don't need any further commodities to realize that. I'm not sure that redirecting our compulsive striving behavior towards saving the planet is all good. We might also be better off letting go a bit-then we are less compelled to drive all over, less compelled to buy a bigger house, to have the latest widget, and we'd consume less and have more time.

I like to think that Freecycle helps people to let go and help each other just a little bit to build such a community spirit. People may join to get something for nothing or to save the planet, however, I think they stay on because they discover how much fun it is giving stuff away to random strangers in their community. That's a nice little paradigm shift to have on a personal level and helps the planet to boot.

Beal's Freecycle organization is worldwide, but is currently designing a new multilingual website to truly be a global gift economy.

Do you think an effort like Freecycle helps people really prioritize their true wants and needs?

I think Freecycle curiously attracts people in because it's such a funky concept and that some find their wants and needs shift as a nice little byproduct of being a part of this gifting movement, intended or not, just because it feels good. But, it's more like a thousand extra smiles a day than something huge, like world peace. But, hey, it works for me!

What other change would you like to see happen in the world?

I suppose we could all make a huge laundry list, couldn't we? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc..." I think if we all start embracing where and who we are right now, and listen to what we really want or need to be happy, which really isn't much, that positive change will come about as a result.

Ok, that, and not forgetting the cloth shopping bags when I hit the supermarket today, for a change. But that's all, I swear...Oh, that, and world peace.

Learn More About Freecycle

If you think that sharing free stuff is a good concept, visit these resources:

  • Freecycle US - A quick link to all US groups. There are more than 4,000 groups worldwide, so there's bound to be one near you. If not, consider starting a group in your community.
  • Read how Freecycle works.
  • Make a donation to help the nonprofit organization's efforts.
Free Stuff: The Freecycle Interview