The stone lion that graced our patio for years had done its work. Faded in the sun, it had lain there for almost a decade after the previous owners left it behind when they moved, and our children and their friends had climbed on to its back while playing. Now we wanted the space back.
But before we heaved it off to the local tip, we tried something different – a simple email to our local Freecycle group. Within hours a smartly dressed couple in a new car turned up to collect it, and then emailed to thank us – “Leo the lion is very happy in his new home.”
One woman’s junk is another woman’s treasure it seems, and that’s where Freecycle comes in.
As the brainwave of Deron Beal, then working in a non-profit recycling centre in Tucson, Arizona, this global movement began almost a decade ago with a simple unwanted bed.
Deron, now 45, wanted to recycle that bed – but the local thrift shops did not accept beds. So instead, he started an online network and offered the bed – and what began as a group of 30 in May 2003 has now developed into over nine million members worldwide.
“It just seemed inappropriate to throw away a bed that was quite nice,” says Deron. “Just because our local donation centre does not take beds and none of my friends needed it, why should I have to rent a truck, drive the bed to a landfill, and pay to throw it into a hole that taxpayer dollars paid to dig in the first place? Knowing that many times the natural resources would be required to make a new bed, it seemed crazy to dispose of one that was good. There had to be a better way of keeping perfectly good items – which may have no monetary value – in circulation.
That’s why I set up Freecycle.org and The Freecycle Network.”
Freecycle is now the largest environmental web community on the planet, with over 5,000 groups in 110 countries – including ones in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. As a grassroots and not-for-profit movement, its aim is to reuse and keep good stuff out of landfill – and a network of local volunteers means that Freecycle can promote waste reduction and help save landscapes being taken over by landfill all over the world.
The movement is now growing fast, with thousands of new members weekly who gift items to their local communities rather than throwing them away. That means keeping 1,000 tonnes out of landfill daily – and over the past year, that adds up to over 13 times the height of Mount Everest when stacked
in garbage trucks.
Changing the world one gift at a time is a new way of thinking, Deron believes.
“I guess giving away a used ‘widget’ rather than throwing it away is really a small thing in the bigger picture of the world at large,” he says. “But having Freecycle.org there for people to use is sort of compounding all those little bits of frustration at having to dispose of something that’s still good, and turns them into a great big positive for the planet with very little effort.”
Unicycles and car parts up for grabs
So what can you give, and get, on Freecycle? Almost anything goes on the Dubai group, begun in May 2005, as long as it’s free, legal and appropriate for all ages, which means no alcohol, tobacco, firearms or drugs. Used balcony furniture for someone moving to a larger flat, an odd printer cartridge, spare parts for cars, clean jam jars, old magazines, outgrown baby clothes, refurbished computers that would otherwise end up in landfill – all have been rehomed thanks to Freecycle.
Some requests are a little odd. When my daughter learned to ride the unicycle, she soon wanted a bigger challenge than her own silver 90-centimetre one. So I posted a tentative request, knowing it was a long shot. But within hours, a woman offered the 150-centimetre bright yellow giraffe unicycle someone had left in the local bus depot where she worked, and that had been taking up space ever since. And when a single packet of sought-after flower seeds left us with more plants than we could ever grow, a post on Freecycle meant a steady stream of grateful gardeners found their way to our door. An outgrown travel cot, a large rug, even an old sofa bed, which meant a young couple no longer had to sleep on the floor – all have found good homes via our local Freecycle.
Sally Cooke, who lives in Dorset in the UK says, “I’m a fan of Freecycle and have used it a lot to gain things from a toaster to office files and loads more… and to give away surplus furniture. My best-ever experience was to be offered a whole kitchen when I was refurbishing mine – that included a fan oven and cooker hood. What a generous Freecycler! Her own new kitchen fitters were going to scrap the lot, which would have been easier for her – so all credit to her for making the effort to post on Freecycle.”
When Abu Dhabi resident Mathew Cibi heard of Freecycle, he was determined to start a local group. “I was interested in sustainable living from a very young age,” he says. “A few years ago I came across the Freecycle website, and when I checked UAE Freecycle it showed that there was only one in Dubai. Keen to start one in the capital, I contacted Freecycle and established Abu Dhabi Freecycle.” Local residents were keen to offer unwanted items on the website, which were quickly rehomed.
One of the keenest was Abu Dhabi resident Paul Henderson. “I believe we need to recycle as much as possible, which is why I’m a member,” he says. Shortly after the group began two-and-a-half years ago, he collected an air purifier from another local resident. “It’s still working,” he smiles.
But Freecycle has other uses, Paul believes. “I now collect anything I can, and donate it to the Thrift shop at St Andrews Church. Then the money is used for various charitable projects in Abu Dhabi, so a charity benefits as well.”
Says Abu Dhabi resident Ian Alphonso, “It’s great that unwanted stuff finds a new home instead of cluttering the junk yards.”
It’s a win-win situation, Freecycle members believe. “I save money because someone else picks up the item and I don’t have to pay to throw it in a landfill,” Deron points out. “So, I feel great, I save money, someone else gets something for free and feels great, and as a result the planet has one less landfill per
year. What’s not to feel hunky dory about? Warm fuzzies abound.”
Yet the huge appeal of Freecycle across the world was an eye-opener, Deron adds. “I thought it would only appeal to environmentalists,” he says. “But it turns out a much greater segment of the population enjoys the ease of finding new homes for old stuff. I like to think these people are new recruits to critical environmental awareness via that first little gift on Freecycle they each make or receive.”
But there’s a serious environmental message in there too. “If we all recycled 100 per cent of our waste starting tomorrow, 98 per cent of the landfill waste would still be created. How can this be? The rest is industrial waste generated by making us tons of new stuff by extracting raw materials from the earth.
“We can take a huge bit out of that 98 per cent simply by reusing the resources and items at hand,” he adds.
“It’s really that easy.
A 45-kilogram sofa requires 20 times the weight in raw materials to produce an old sofa: diesel, pesticides, cotton, and wood.
So if you give away an old sofa, you are not just keeping 45 kilograms out of landfill, you are keeping 900 kilograms from being extracted from the earth to produce a new sofa. That’s a huge multiplier effect for doing something that’s easier and cheaper anyway.”
So as Freecycle approaches its 10th birthday, how big could it get? “Whatever size fits people’s needs,” Deron shrugs. “But I’d like to see folks becoming more aware of not throwing away items that still have some use in them.
“And what’s in it for individuals is ultimately what’s in it for the planet: reducing the amount of waste in society.”
Making a difference
- Who: Freecycle
- What: Reducing the number of things going into landfills by recycling
- Where: all over the world