When cast-offs are a giveaway
As more and more perfectly usable household items are discarded at the local tip, an online recycling service is offering an antidote to our throw-away culture. Jonny Beardsall signs up to Freecycle and is soon intrigued
ree to a good home.” Whenever these five words catch my eye on a card in the newsagent’s shop window, the effect is stupefying. I always pause and read on. It usually refers to a puppy or maybe a hamster or, very occasionally, to an aluminium greenhouse, with the caveat “buyer to dismantle”. But in a world where we keep throwing perfectly serviceable things away, offering goods for free is a concept that is also winging its way over the internet into mainstream homes.
If you already recycle, then Freecycle sounds like the perfect next step. Instead of lugging your unwanted consumer durables into your attic or heaving them into a skip or avariciously selling them at a car-boot sale, you simply give them away on a website.
It’s as easy as it is radical. And given the numbers of working televisions, fridges and lawnmowers, canoes and chairs that eventually find their way into landfills, it makes complete sense.
“It’s as if you’re living in a small community, it’s almost a need to find something we’ve lost,” explains my neighbour in north Yorkshire, Rob Hall, who has a small-holding, and first heard about Freecycle 18 months ago when it was featured on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show. “I saw someone was giving away a Land Rover the other day – it must have been completely knackered but someone will have wanted it. I’ve given away anything from an old guitar to computer software and I’ve picked up a new double-bed. It’s amazing what comes up.”
Freecycle was the brainchild of Deron Beal, an environmentalist from Arizona, who started it in 2003 as an automated e-mail list. Today it resembles a cross between an online auction house and a global collection of charity shops. The phenomenon now has 1.2 million members in 2,700 clusters worldwide. There are 60 groups in Britain – and there is sure to be one near you – which means that items can be picked up rather than posted.
It’s free to join and individuals, families and many charities are the better for it, particularly those in the wellheeled environs of Kensington and Chelsea, where one group has nearly 450 members. You log on and, from out of cyberspace, someone you will probably never meet approves your application. Then you’re off.
The York group has 6,000 members and this is growing by 100 a week. Most will be ecoaware and not all of them skint or on their uppers. “There is no particular type... it’s mums and students to retired people, who all agree that stuff shouldn’t end up in a big hole,” says Ben Weaver, 28, an electronics teaching fellow at York University, whose wife, Jill, is a PhD research student. “Because I’ve run computer-recycling schemes before this was something that instantly appealed to us when we first read about Freecycle.”
The two most popular items offered in York are baby things and large cardboard boxes for moving house. “Sometimes you can spot the same set of cardboard boxes being posted time and time again as they are being passed down the line,” he says. “Although you don’t know who you’re dealing with until you go to pick up an item, or they turn up on your doorstep, you do remember people that you’ve met and start recognising them online. I’ve made friends with some of them.”
I currently get about 10 Freecycle emails a day with up to 25 new items on each. Reading them becomes strangely gripping. I can reduce these to one message a day, which will be less distracting.
Bizarrely, not everything offered is in full working order. It is up to you if you are really mad enough to want a dishwasher “that is leaking slightly”, a CD that is “a bit temperamental at times” or a 1,000 piece jigsaw “with one piece missing”.
Treasure under the mattress: Ruby Beardsall, 11, of Ellingstring, near Masham, North Yorkshire, with fellow villager Colin Weightman, who was given the bed without charge as a fellow member of the Freecycle network