Ofra Sharon-Afir has discovered all sorts of people willing to take her junk. Through PhillyFreecycle, a group of people who take unwanted goods off each others’ hands, she found homes for her oven, 180 dishes, more than 1,000 books, 200 records and rugs that her dogs had peed on.
Thanks to the Internet-based group, the Olney woman cleared out about 80 percent of her house. It was a relief for Sharon-Afir, who proudly shows off her near-empty kitchen cabinets. “I collected a lot of things: books, videos, cassettes, CDs, knitting items,” says the middle-aged, retired folk singer and semi-retired doula. “I fluctuate between a collector and a minimalist, so it’s perfect for me.”
The Freecycle Network, as it’s formally called, started in Tucson, Ariz., in May 2003 and launched in Philly that November. Philadelphia has one group that covers the whole city and three neighborhood-specific groups. There are more than 23,000 members, although Sharon-Afir says all the members she knows belong to at least two groups. And that’s not counting groups in suburbia.
Now, Freecycle headquarters claim 7 million members—4.6 million Americans—spread out over 4,700 groups in 103 countries.
The way Freecycle works is simple. Anyone can sign up for a local email list, where members post what they want or have to give away. Need a size 7 black skirt but don’t feel like buying one? Post a message. Chances are someone nearby will email. If you have something to give away, you choose the recipient. There are few restrictions: No talk of exchanging cash, no guns or gun parts, and everything posted to the list must be legal for all ages—so no booze, cigarettes or porn.
Four years ago, Sharon-Afir offered up her Plymouth Champ on Freecycle after the 16-year-old car died on Cheltenham Avenue. She knew someone could use it. A guy towed it away, she recalls, and six months later called to say he’d saved up enough money to fix it for his wife.
PhillyFreecycle started with two environmentalist friends in Mount Airy who wanted to keep reusable items out of landfills and give them a second life. “I’ve never stopped marveling at how much stuff Americans have,” co-founder Betsy Teutsch says. The group started in Northwest Philly and within six months spread throughout the city.
What began as a means to help the environment has morphed into a phenomenon meeting the needs of all sorts of people. Some join Freecycle to help the earth, some to clean decades of stuff from their houses, some to save money, some for the thrill of getting something for nothing. A few take free items and sell them, which some members don’t appreciate.
Freecycle has grown because of growing environmentalism, the economic downturn and the Internet’s pervasiveness in daily life, says sociologist Samantha MacBride, who studies waste. “There’s a very strong ethic in people to not want to see a perfectly good item go into the trash,” says MacBride, who teaches at Columbia University.
Sharon-Afir says she basically lived off Freecycle for a couple of years, as she’d sometimes go a few months between nanny jobs. She collected clothes and dog items others gave away. Her bed, her duvet, the knife block and canister set in her kitchen all came from Freecycle. She attributes her frugality and distaste for clutter to growing up on a kibbutz near Netanya, Israel. “You didn’t throw anything out,” she recalls.
Maurie Cohen, a chemistry and environmental science professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says Freecycle shows Americans’ desire to be frugal—a common trend in down economies. Environmental consciousness has faded as a reason to join. “There is an austerity chic that has taken effect,” Cohen says. “Whereas in the past, if someone was taking on goods off Freecycle, it was out of some economic need. That’s not the case anymore.”
Patricia Kinsman met plenty of frugal people when she used Freecycle to clear out her apartment. For 10 years she’d lived in a two-story South Philly rental with basement access, and in December she and her boyfriend moved into a house in Fishtown. “I had so much room for crap and I just never had to get rid of it,” says Kinsman, who screens Freecycle posts to ensure they’re appropriate.
Her favorite taker was a man who came with his family to pick up an IKEA dresser with warped drawers. “He took the thing apart in front of me and disassembled it,” Kinsman says. “They carried it away in three trips on a dolly and reassembled it in his house.”
Hideko Secrest, who also screens posts, fell in love with Freecycle for its original purpose. In conversation she differentiates between different kinds of plastic by their recycling numbers and drives them to a Pottstown recycling facility a few times a year. When her husband occasionally throws orange peels in the trash, she fishes them out and puts them in the compost bucket.
Before Secrest found Freecycle five years ago, she struggled over what to do with usable but unused things in her Mount Airy home. She didn’t want to donate to thrift shops because some inventory looked like it had spent years on shelves.
The amount of stuff Secrest had accumulated became clear after her house caught fire when it was struck by lightning Aug. 2. Few of her family’s belongings were damaged, and everything was boxed up and taken to the Chestnut Hill house they’re renting until the other house is fixed. So she’s giving away what her family doesn’t need. One afternoon a wire hamster enclosure and boxed ceiling fan sat on her porch, waiting for pickup.
Environmental Protection Agency figures show that 249.6 million tons of trash were generated nationwide in 2008. Of that, 37.7 million tons, or 15 percent, were possibly reusable items that were disposed of.
Worldwide, Freecycle claims to keep 750 tons out of landfills each day. By comparison, Philadelphia collected 566,000 tons of garbage in the 2009 fiscal year beginning the previous July 1, and 626,000 tons the year before.
Meenal Raval, co-founder of PhillyFreecycle, estimates that the organization diverts 456 tons from the trash annually. But that’s a rough estimate. For the first three months she logged each Freecycle transaction and estimated its weight by weighing similar items in her house or looking up the weight online. Since then she’s extrapolated her figures.
We’re not sure why China wants our trash (recyclables are considered commodities) and we are appropriately suspicious, but the money’s right so we’ll take it.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom