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Free and Fabulous

IT'S NOT OFTEN THAT TRASH GARNERS a massive amount of positive attention, but a relatively new re-use group, called Freecycle, has been earning accolades inside and outside the waste industry. The Tucson, Ariz.-based group aims to keep items out of landfills by offering a forum through which people can get rid of their unwanted items — for free.

The group works through locally based e-mail lists — sometimes more than one per metro area — where members can post e-mails offering their unwanted items, and other members can respond to offers. Members are free to choose which respondent they want to give their items to.

The idea behind Freecycle — giving unwanted items to others — is not a new one. For many years, there have been groups nationwide that offer surplus items to individuals or charities. Some have even been government-sponsored, such as the LACoMax group in Los Angeles, but the far reach of Freecycle is new to the world of re-use.

Most re-use programs are limited to a certain geographical area, but Freecycle allows any metropolitan area to create its own affiliated group. Since its formation in May 2003, the network has grown to 2,383 groups in 50 states and several foreign countries for a total of 950,000 members. Its growth has been astounding, says Freecycle Founder Deron Beal. “We have grown by 100,000 members in the past week. We have had 2,300 percent growth in the past six months,” he says. He expects to have millions of members within a few months.

The exponential membership growth is having an effect on the waste stream nationwide. With a conservative estimate of 1 pound per item exchanged through the group, Beal estimates that the organization is saving 40 tons per day from becoming landfill fodder. Because items exchanged can include furniture, vehicles, computer monitors and small items such as bath products and toys, it is possible that the actual tonnage could be higher, he says.

Freecycle also has garnered the attention of one of the industry's biggest players, Houston-based Waste Management Inc. (WM). The company initially approached Freecycle last fall and signed an agreement in late February for a $130,000 Freecycle sponsorship, which will be in effect for 12 months. Additionally, WM will promote Freecycle to its employees and customers through bill stuffers and newsletters. “We felt that Freecycle was about the biggest re-use story of 2004,” says Kent Stoddard, vice president of public affairs for WM's western group. “They were so successful that they were having a tough time managing the phenomenal growth, and we realized that they really needed some help.”

WM will begin promoting Freecycle in its Western markets, Chicago and Canada, and then will roll-out promotion assistance in other markets as interest grows. The company says that re-use is an important part of managing waste and that its customers are always looking for comprehensive ways to manage their waste stream. WM believes that Freecycle fits well into such plans.

“I love the philosophy they are promoting here,” Stoddard says. “It's better to re-use than dispose, and it's better to give than to sell. Those are just very nice messages.”

Freecycle will use WM's sponsorship to manage legal expenses, such as national and international copyrights, and to add more staff to the organization. This is a much-needed expansion because Beal works for Freecycle for free, in addition to his full-time job at nonprofit RISE Inc., Tucson, Ariz.

The WM funds also will be used to create a more dynamic Web site for members so that e-mail lists for each affiliated group can be tailored to meet specific needs, and specialized subgroups, such as meet-up toy exchanges for parents, can be formed. Members also will be able to customize e-mail preferences so they receive Freecycle e-mails only when certain categories of items are offered, such as baby clothes or furniture. Beal also hopes to include more information about local recycling programs on each group's Web page.

Beal originally came up with the idea for Freecycle when trying to figure out what to do with all the donated materials RISE had received but could not recycle. RISE had garnered a reputation in the community for accepting unwanted items, so Beal had amassed a collection of things such as beds, computer monitors, desks and other items. He initially tried donating them to organizations such as Goodwill Industries, but they would not take a majority of the donations. Beal says that he did not want to waste resources by throwing them away, so he created a Yahoo! e-mail group that included about 40 area nonprofits and a few friends. He offered up the unwanted items for the taking. After the initial few e-mails went out, he thought he should open the group up to anyone who wanted to join. He wanted a catchy name, so he coined the name Freecycle, and the organization was born.

Beal says he is happy about the group's success, and not just about diverting so much would-be trash from landfills. “It's all about the cycle of giving, and Freecycle is like meta-charity,” he says. “It's everybody helping everybody. The humblest of us can become a philanthropist.”