Garbage Sale

LIKE UNWANTED GUESTS, old computers, tools and scrap from home remodeling projects often linger on homeowners' property. But a growing movement of online waste exchanges is encouraging material reuse and providing residents the opportunity to make a little cash for their would-be trash.

Tacoma, Wash., and other municipalities across the state have introduced to keep reusable items out of the landfill. “Instead of letting your unwanted goods pile up in the garage, or finding a charity or recycling source to accept the unwanted items, puts the owner in charge,” says Bill Smith, senior environmental specialist with the city of Tacoma's Solid Waste Management Division.

Currently, 17 municipalities participate in the online exchange, which the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) coordinates. Each municipality pays a one-time $500 licensing fee and annual site administration fee of $800 to join the exchange. Residents and nonprofit businesses then can post items for sale up to $99. They also can search for items by geography and category. Users can browse items from any area, but they can only post items in their jurisdiction. Once buyers find an item they want to purchase, they make pickup and delivery arrangements by phone or e-mail — the site does not provide online transactions.

The joint city of Tacoma/Pierce County portion of the site has generated 770 successful exchanges and more than 2,451 postings of items for sale since the site went online in September 2003. Statewide, 2,601 successful exchanges have occurred from 8,568 postings. Among the items available are appliances, furniture, construction materials, cabinets, carpet, lumber, tools, electronics and automotive parts.

According to Shelly McClure, DOE sustainability specialist, the founding municipalities worked with Canadian developer i-WasteNot Systems, Vancouver, British Columbia, to create the Web site. “They host and administer the site, so our local governments don't have to be exchange experts or troubleshooters,” she says.

In fact, one of the reasons Tacoma joined with other municipalities on the Web site was to combine resources, Smith says. “In tight-budget times, the collaboration gives municipalities a way to pool their resources for site development and maintenance,” he says. Smith says he spends less than two hours a week reviewing postings and answering user e-mail, which allows him to concentrate on site promotion.

To track the city of Tacoma's and Pierce County's return on investment, the site developer is attempting to collect standard weights for certain items to estimate how much material is being diverted from landfills. Even without the data, McClure is confident that the site is successful.

“The site allows municipalities to offer a valid reuse program that expands the recycling ethic,” she says. “It connects people and keeps things local.”

The municipalities have worked with a social marketing consultant to target the appropriate audience. Additionally, Tacoma's Community Relations Office has developed brochures and postcards, distributed news releases to the local media, published newspaper ads and newsletters, and run television announcements to generate Web traffic.

“The goal for all of us is to preserve resources,” Smith says. Through, municipalities are working together to promote reuse, while their citizens lose some unwanted items and gain a little money in the process.