Freecycling Online

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2315, 2005-04-15, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 17 and 20) and their website.

As humans continue to create more durable consumer products, in addition to retaining products created in the past, we are increasingly facing a problem of having more "stuff" than we know what to do with. Our ancestors, who may have faced the adversity of not having enough goods or even enough food, would likely laugh at our complaining of having two-car garages and multiple closets filled to overflowing with a wide assortment of unneeded and underutilized items.

Citizens of the U.S., like those of other industrialized countries, are not immune to this predicament. We drive oversized vehicles to enormous malls, max out our credit cards by purchasing countless toys for young and old alike, and later stuff them (the toys, that is) into bulging closets. And that's just the day after Thanksgiving!

As a result of our energetic accumulation, we now have a seemingly endless supply of items that we would like to get rid of, if only to help free up some space… for newer stuff! We can either try to sell the unwanted items, or give them away. In the former case, we can use auctions, classified ads, or garage sales to turn those goods into cash (invariably less than what we paid), often to help pay off our credit cards. In the latter case, we can give them to people we know or donate them to charitable organizations.

As a result of greater communication — particularly via the Internet — there is now another alternative: freecycling, whereby individuals give (and get) products that would otherwise end up rotting in storage or, even worse, rotting in landfills. Years ago, one might occasionally have seen signs posted in neighborhoods, offering free items (even puppies) to anyone who would like them, at no charge. But now that so many people are on the Internet, it was inevitable that they would take advantage of the greater convenience and lower cost of communicating, specifically, offering items up for free.

On the other side of the coin, freecycling is of obvious benefit to the recipient of the unwanted item. Not only are they getting something of value at no cost — aside from the time needed to contact the giver and pick up the item — but they can avoid the effort and expense of bidding for similar items on auction websites and then paying for shipping, or visiting retail or thrift stores and paying the item's price plus sales taxes.

Freecycling on the Internet is a phenomenon that originally began as a grassroots attempt to reduce the amount of usable products that end up being tossed in the trash, and from there to our overburdened landfills and incinerators. Now more and more people are using freecycle websites and mailing lists as an effective means to give away things that they might not value anymore, but which could prove quite useful to someone else out there on the Internet.

Searching for Free Stuff

The substantial interest and activity in the world of freecycling is clearly reflected in the number of Web pages that mention the subject. Googling for the term "freecycle" results in over 100,000 hits. If you choose to examine Google's output, and scan through the variety of Web pages reported, you will quickly see that most of them are references to the term within articles, or keywords embedded on the pages of websites attempting to lure you with the promise of free goodies.

Consequently, it's more productive to utilize Internet groups, as they tend to constitute a forum that better reflects grassroots activity — unlike websites, which are managed and funded for the most part by commercial firms. Looking through Google Groups, you will discover 38 newsgroups devoted to freecycling. Several major American cities are represented, from Bakersfield to Yorktown, with a variety of newsgroups devoted to smaller locales, such as Ross County (which for some reason caught my eye).

If you do live in a region represented by one of the freecycle newsgroups, then the group will function just like any other, in that you can read the group's entries posted by other people (using a Web browser pointed to Google Groups, or a newsgroup reader) and also post your own messages, if you have one or more things that you would like to give away.

Sadly, for those of us living in San Diego, Colorado, or New Mexico, there do not appear to be any freecycling Google Groups as of this writing. On the other hand, most of the groups that do exist tend to have few members, which naturally defeats the purpose of announcing or searching for the proverbial "another man's treasure" amid all of the "one man's trash".

The Best of Free

For many reasons, Internet newsgroups have been supplanted by Yahoo Groups. Freecycling is a good example of this: Searching Yahoo Groups for the term "freecycle" results in 4200 hits, and most of the groups listed appear to have far more members and postings than the Internet newsgroups. For instance, Bakersfield has two freecycle newsgroups, each with only a single member. But the city also has at least four freecycle Yahoo groups, with a total of 1551 members.

The best way to find out more about freecycling and any groups in your area, is to check Freecycle Network, whose motto is "Changing the world one gift at a time". They keep track of 2335 freecycle groups all over the world, grouped by U.S. regions, Canada, and other countries. Their International list has 216 groups, while their Canadian list has 186.

Yet most of the groups are in the U.S., the undisputed consumer capital of the universe. There are six categories, including "US West Coast" and "US Central". That first category would be one way to quickly find the San Diego Freecycle Yahoo Group.

Even though the Freecycle Network is helping to hook up givers with recipients, at no charge, someone naturally is complaining about this development. In this case, newspapers are concerned that freecycle postings will cut into classified ad revenue, similar to what craigslist has been doing for several years. In an article published by Inland Press Association (2 December 2004), Dennis Coyle states that freecycling has already attracted over 680,000 people, which should have regional newspapers worried.

But lumping the Freecycle Network in with craigslist and other free classified ad services, makes little sense. Deron Beal, creator of Freecycle, notes that the service fills a small niche that is not normally associated with newspapers, since free classifieds are something newspapers typically do not offer.

Regardless of how paranoid the newspapers get about freecycling, you can certainly make the most of this worthy online phenomenon. It's a fast and ecologically positive way to pick up a wide variety of consumer goods, free of any charge, as well as getting rid of those items years later, when your spouse gives you an ultimatum to either clean up or clean out.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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