A free-for-all online recycles used `junk'

Freecycle: A service is linking people who have items they don't want with the people who do.

March 18, 2004|By Aman Batheja | Aman Batheja,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FORT WORTH, Texas - David Neeley hated to think about those boxes in his storage room, all filled with useful items collecting dust.

There was a vacuum cleaner in good condition and a pasta maker, among other things.

"I found more and more items that are either duplicates of things I already have or that I just don't use," Neeley said. "I thought, `I need to find a home for these things, not just throw them away.'"

After looking through some of those boxes in his Irving, Texas, house a few months ago, Neeley learned of Freecycle (www.free cycle.org), a growing service championing the idea of reuse through community altruism.

Just hours after hearing about the service, Neeley formed the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, Freecycle chapter. Ever since, people across the region have been finding the bargains of their lives, absolutely free.

"It's definitely an idea whose time has come," Neeley said. "I think we have to move toward a more giving and caring attitude toward our communities, and this is a small and practical part of that."

Freecycle was created in May in Tucson, Ariz., by an employee of a nonprofit recycling group called Rise. The intent was to reduce landfill consumption by having area nonprofits give away rather than throw away unneeded furniture and office supplies. The idea caught on quickly, with residents joining in. Pretty soon, Freecycle chapters were popping up.

According to the Freecycle Web site, 279 cities have chapters with more than 37,000 people taking part. The Washington chapter has nearly 500 members; no Maryland chapters have been founded yet.

The chapters consist of e-mail lists run through Yahoo groups. Users post messages about items they want to get rid of, and other users reply, offering to take them off their hands. Users also post messages identifying items they hope to find.

Neeley said that volunteer moderators make sure users are upholding the principles of Freecycle. "Every once in a while, people will try to trade something or try and get into something commercial with fees attached, and that's not consistent with the group's fundamental idea," he said.

The Dallas-Fort Worth chapter has attracted almost 400 members since November, with the total now just shy of 900. Neeley said that if membership continues to grow as quickly, the chapter will probably soon split into separate Dallas and Fort Worth chapters to make them easier to manage.

Clothing, toys, furniture and appliances are the most common items offered. One member gave away theater masks that had been used in a school play. Another offered trusses and metal from a dismantled shed.

Josh Graham of Rowlett, Texas, has offered to cut down anyone's tree for free, as long as he can keep the wood. Graham said that he needs the wood for his bow-making business.

"I hope that I'll be able to eventually find a regular supply of wood through Freecycle," Graham said.

A concern among many new members is whether Freecycle is safe. In response, every new member receives an e-mail outlining "Freecycle Etiquette." It includes tips on how to minimize the risks of arranging the pickup of items.

"You just have to be careful and don't leave yourself alone. Remember that you have asked a stranger to come to your house," said Edith Hightower of Dallas, an active Freecycle member for two months.

Although the conservation aspect was the main premise behind Freecycle's start, helping others in need has become a major motive for users.

Sherri Linder of Fort Worth recently used Freecycle to give a treadmill to a group home for mentally challenged young adults. She originally signed on to the site to find things for a battered-women's shelter. In December, she picked up a bag of toys that she dropped off at the shelter in time for Christmas.

"Everyone I've run into through Freecycle has been extremely open and kind," she said.

Christine Gianadda of Dallas has given away clothes and larger items, including a doghouse. She said it felt good to see some of her belongings help a cash-strapped family.

"It makes me feel a little better that it's going directly to someone who is going to use it rather than going to a thrift store," Gianadda said. "I don't need a tax write-off for this stuff. It's just junk."

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