Freecycle, reduce, reuse

Building community one gift at a time

Jean Colegrove’s Freecylce came full circle when she scored a sofa table from the woman who loved her old Christmas ornaments.

Jean Colegrove’s Freecylce came full circle when she scored a sofa table from the woman who loved her old Christmas ornaments.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

If your house is anything like mine, it contains at least a few items you really wouldn’t miss if you never saw them again. Maybe you’ve got exercise equipment you never use, too many clothes, more than one of the same appliance, toys everyone in the house has outgrown. Wouldn’t it be great if you could give these items to people who would use and appreciate them? If you belong to a Freecycle group, it’s easy to do.

The Freecycle Network is made up of people all over the world who recycle old belongings by offering them as free gifts to others in their communities. Although individual Freecycle groups are associated with the larger network and are bound by certain network rules, they are each locally “owned” by volunteer moderators who run e-mail lists through which group members communicate. Joel Martin, a member of the Freecycle Network’s Group Outreach and Assistance team, stresses the importance of this independence and he points out the benefit of this design. “Each group is specific to a local area and so it meets local needs,” he says.

The Sacramento area has a large number of groups to choose from, including north Sacramento, south Sacramento, and many, many others specific to individual neighborhoods and surrounding communities.

The Freecycle Network began in May of 2003, when founder Deron Beal sent an e-mail to 30 or 40 people in Tucson, Ariz. At the time, Beal worked with a nonprofit recycling organization and he often found himself trying to donate items they received for recycling. He realized rather than making multiple phone calls or trips around town, it made more sense to send one e-mail to a network of people and nonprofit organizations to alert everyone to a potentially useful item. Over the past four years, the Freecycle movement has spread fast; there are now Freecycle groups in 75 countries, and the movement is growing all the time. Some groups are tiny. The Freecycle group in Botswana, for instance, has seven members, and the Moroccan group has six. Others have thousands of members in one city alone.

Today, the Freecycle Network itself is incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Arizona and functions through the support of a sophisticated, global web of volunteers who make up the staff. The mission of the Network is “to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources and eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.” Think of Freecycle gifts as not-so-random, very well-organized acts of kindness, and the ultimate way to reduce, reuse and recycle—hitting all three steps in one easy move. Sure, it’s a simple concept, but it’s a powerful environmental force: Currently, the Freecycle Network Web site claims that the movement is keeping 300 tons of garbage a day out of the world’s landfills.

If you’re interested, it’s easy to join the movement. You can find a local Freecycle group by checking the listings at

Once you join a group, the moderator will approve your membership and you’ll receive a standard welcome e-mail explaining the rules for posting. When you offer an item to your group, you get to choose which of the respondents will receive the gift. Nonprofit organizations still are encouraged to participate in Freecycle groups and some groups encourage their members to consider prioritizing such organizations if they respond to a gift offer. While Freecycle groups are first and foremost to be used to make gifts of items you don’t want, it is also permissible once in a while to request something you’re looking for, as long as you use this option sparingly.

Jean Colegrove, a Sacramento resident, has been a member of the north Sacramento Freecycle group for several years. Colegrove always has been committed to limiting the material objects she brings into her house and makes sure stuff she gets rid of goes to new homes rather than being thrown in the garbage. “I have a saying, ‘Not in my house and not in the landfill.’” says Colegrove. I think people are overwhelmed by their belongings. Our culture says buy it, maybe use it and then toss it.”

One of Colegrove’s favorite stories is about the Christmas decorations she gave to a woman celebrating her first Christmas. The woman was overjoyed to receive the ornaments and six months later, when Colegrove was looking for a sofa table, the same woman answered her “Wanted” ad. When Colegrove went to get the sofa, she says the woman was still thanking her for the ornaments. Colegrove loves that her Freecycle group allows her to give unwanted items a new lease on life—even items that are sometimes hard to give away through other avenues. “There are things people have gladly taken that charities would have left. I’ve gotten rid of everything I’ve advertised—and I’ve advertised a lot.” She also likes the immediacy of offering something and having someone remove it from her house right away—sometimes even the same day.

If you’re wondering what gets offered on Freecycle groups, the answer is everything. Recent sample items listed at included plant food, old magazines and a pair of men’s waders for fly fishing. Recently, one of the groups I belong to listed a grocery bag full of plums someone had rescued from a neighbor’s tree, a collection of empty prescription drug bottles and a unique combo gift of chicken wire and unused fabric. I recently handed off an old sewing machine to a woman whose own machine had just broken—and I’m here to tell you it feels great to know that my unwanted item will have a new home. Martin sums it up nicely: “Why should something that’s perfectly useful go into a landfill, when someone else might be able to use it?”