May 5, 2007

Do You Freecycle? Thousands of Your Neighbors Do

Think of Freecycle as a yard sale where no money changes hands. The profit is the time you don't have to spend on a Saturday morning convincing a stranger your son's hamster cage really is worth a buck.

Conversely, think of it as a cyberplace where it's possible to ask for a headboard for your daughter's bedroom or a set of golf clubs for your son, and before the day is out, go pick it up.

Without leaving town. Without spending a penny.

No matter what "it" is, you'll probably be able to get rid of it and find it at your local Freecycle online community. It's part of a non-profit, grassroots movement to keep useable goods out of landfills by getting and giving these things for free locally. The Belleville Freecycle group has more than 2,300 members. Other local groups include Edwardsville, Collinsville, O'Fallon, Alton, Bethalto, Cahokia, East St. Louis, Granite City, Highland and Randolph County.

Other than requiring Internet access, it's free to sign up to join Freecycle and establish an e-mail account at Yahoo, if you don't already have one. Once you establish your creds -- a short online form to fill out -- a moderator will approve you (usually in the same day). Then you can start posting messages and receiving them from other Belleville Freecycle members. The list of "wants" and "offers" ranges from the typical, such as bags of hardly worn kids' clothes, to the surprisingly expensive items, like a lawn mower.

Or, get rid of fish food and end up with a cup of tadpoles.

That's what happened last week to Linda Beck of Belleville, a mother of eight. She posted a message saying the aquarium at home no longer had fish, so she wanted to give away their food rather than pitch it. When she got into a conversation with a woman who wanted the food, they ended up talking about what else Linda's kids could put in the aquarium.

"The lady had tadpoles," said Linda, who's youngest is 8 and oldest is 26. "She said, 'I'll drop off the tadpoles when I pick up the fish food.'"

The tadpoles are now in their new home. "No frogs yet," said Beck with a chuckle.

Last year, her 21-year-old son, BJ, wanted to take a swing at a new sport without investing a lot of money. Mom got online and "I got him a set of golf clubs."

For some members, joining Freecycle is a way to avoid holding or attending yard sales.

Sandy Doucette of Belleville joined three years ago.

"I hate yard sales," she said. When she had things to give way, a neighbor told her about Freecycle.

"I've given away furniture, books, kitchen items, clothing. I've even given some plants away."

Not one who has a lot of "wants," Doucette said she asked for a used lawnmower online and got more than she expected.

"It was brand new and the lady's husband couldn't get it to work. My husband looked at it and found out it was a bent screw. He fixed it and it's been running great ever since."

Full disclosure is a necessary commodity at Freecycle groups.

Tara Maisel of Belleville is the "owner" of the Belleville group, a volunteer position she took over two years ago from the woman who started it in June 2004.

The stay-at-home mom's role is to approve memberships and screen messages.

"The computer is on 24 hours a day!" she said. She makes sure all the items offered or sought in the Belleville group are above board and are described as honestly as possible.

"We ask members to be upfront about what works and what doesn't work," she said. "If you offer a washer that works but doesn't spin, you need to say so."

The group has benefited her as well.

"I got all the clutter out of the house in two months!" she explained, laughing. "With three kids, there are always clothes and toys galore." Among the things she has received have been an entertainment center and two desks.

Maisel has help from Melanie Fahrner of Belleville, who has been the volunteer moderator since 2005 and also approves messages.

"We want people to receive things in a useable condition," she said of checking offers.

Doucette likes the idea that "we're keeping all this stuff from going to the garbage," but says members need to police themselves and "go through everything and make sure it's useable. It's great that it will go to someone who wants them, rather than try to sell it for a quarter at a yard sale."

Beyond that, anyone "gifting" an item can choose who will receive it by sending that person a message and negotiating the time and day of pickup.

The receiver is expected to pick it up at the convenience of the person who is doing the giving.

"I sit things on the front porch when I know someone will be picking something up," said one-year member Denise Reaves of Belleville. Other members request no pickups past a certain time, or not after dark.

"Someone needed a car seat and I passed it along," said Reaves. " ... I've never had a bad experience. The worst complaint is when you have no-shows."

About six months ago, she received a computer hard-drive tower. It now powers the computer her kids use to play educational games.

"It has Windows XP on it and I found a monitor for $10," she said, adding that when she totaled up what she spent, it came to about $25.

Maisel said whatever you can pick up and move can disappear quickly at Freecycle.

"You name it, I've seen it: Washers, dryers, furniture, clothes -- a lot of clothes for kids -- even a trailer," she said.

It's become so popular that about 100 new members are added weekly, said Maisel.

And just reading some of the messages can be entertaining.

In a recent posting, a member named Gary has some bike parts "that the wife has told me to clear out." His sense of humor wins out at the end of the e-mail: "...You must take all and now I have room for more stuff -- yeah, life is good."


On the Net:

To learn more about the Freecycle Network, go to www.freecycle.org  

Local site: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Belleville-IL-Freecycle