Give & Take

With Freecycle.org's exchange of people's unwanted worldly goods, nothing goes to waste

July 08, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN REPORTER

Her son, a Marine corporal, was moving out of barracks and wanted a recliner for his new apartment. Patsy Shifrin could have gone to a La-Z-Boy store and forked over a few hundred bucks. Or she could have gone on Freecycle.org, the online bulletin board, and secured for her son a gently used La-Z-Boy for ... nothing. Nada. Zip.

Guess which she chose?

Lo and behold, four recliners were offered up within hours of her posted request for a free La-Z-Boy. Before sunset, her son, Cpl. Ben Shifrin, and a buddy were driving around with a La-Z-Boy in their truck.

Since its launch in Tucson, Ariz., five years ago, Freecycle.org has spread across the globe to 4,531 communities with 5.4 million members. Baltimore's group, one of the first on the East Coast, began in 2004 and has more than 5,000 members. That doesn't include separate chapters for Owings Mills and Westminster. In all, Maryland has 44 Freecycle offshoots, each geographically contained so no recipient will have too far to drive to collect the goods.

Offered items are a varied and eccentric bunch. Recently, members have had the chance to snap up "one small drumstick" (presumably the instrumental kind, but just the one), a cosmetology mannequin head and at least three fixer-upper sailboats, as well as all manner of other stuff - bags of clothes, old National Geographic magazines, microwaves, couches, beds, plastic silverware, paint and an antique carved rocker.

Some of it might fetch a decent price if the owner chose to sell; other items are barely worth a two-mile trip with gas at $4 a gallon.

If nothing else, Freecycle is a testament to some primeval urge not to let anything, no matter how insignificant, go to waste. How else to explain this cryptic listing: "Offer: Not sure what it is." ("I think it is a dish that holds Easter Eggs," adds the owner.)

So powerful is this impulse that offers have included an opened bottle of Centrum vitamins ("I don't want these to go to waste," writes the donor), expired canned goods and a broken telescope ("Maybe," its owner suggests hopefully, "you could fix it!").

It's not just givers who write in to the site, but seekers, too, such as Hampden resident Jamie Schott. One day, for no good reason, he remembered thinking to himself how much he enjoyed playing the trumpet as a kid. So he posted a "wanted" notice on Freecycle. Soon enough, he was again tooting his own horn.

Rarely do givers and takers meet. For security and convenience, the site recommends that items be left on the porch or front steps. It works well, this elegantly simple system of keeping things out of landfills and putting them into the hands of people who can still use them.

But as with any community, Freecycle has adopted laws to govern how members behave. The Baltimore group's code runs to a whopping 3,000 words, perhaps a sign that a lawyer offered free legal advice. The rules are meant to help ensure smooth sharing and a Zen-like balance between giving and getting.

Even so, tempers occasionally flare to the point that one of the Baltimore site's three volunteer moderators insists on using only his first name, Rick, after he said he received threats from members who were not allowed to post items for various reasons. The last thing Rick says he wants is a free broken nose from an irate freecycler.

ONLY PHYSICAL ITEMS YOU PERSONALLY OWN MAY BE OFFERED. Please do not post about services, web pages, information, or anything intangible.

One member had an Orioles ticket to give away. That was fine. The problem was he also had a ticket for the adjacent seat and proposed driving the would-be recipient to Camden Yards. Freecycle moderators rejected his offer since it constituted a personal service.

In the same vein, you can't "freecycle" yourself. That's what dating sites are for. One woman tried - perhaps facetiously - to freecycle her husband. That was deemed a no-no.

Otherwise, just about anything is fair game, as long as it's legal for all ages to possess.

So, there was nothing inappropriate about a frozen moose head finding itself on Freecycle, with the plea from its unhappy owner, Angela Benam: "Please get it outta here!"

The moose head had come from Alaska. Benam's husband is a documentary filmmaker and had needed it for a close-up shot. Afterward, he brought it home, still frozen. She didn't want it there, but what to do? Putting it out with the trash seemed wrong.

Then it hit her. "Let's just put it on Freecycle," she recalls saying. "Those people take anything."

She had no idea how much demand there would be for a frozen moose head. Nearly 20 responses came back. At least one seemed to be a rueful joke from a woman eyeing it for her "cheating ex-husband." More cheerily, a teacher wanted to pass it on to a man who visits classrooms with animal bones as educational props.

In the end, Benam chose an old acquaintance who'd spotted her post: a longtime collector of "pretty weird stuff," she says, who plans to display the skull at his home.

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