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by Emily Claire Afan 

Fluorescent lights. Garden sheds. Half a bag of Epsom salts? All Darren Barber wanted was a microwave for his new apartment. Preferably a free microwave. And he knew exactly where to look.

He’d heard about it through word of mouth. His friend needed an iron and found one here, so Barber, 23, was hoping he might have the same luck. The University of Toronto software engineering student took a chance and posted a request on Freecycle.org:

“I am a 4th year U of T student moving into a 2 bdrm apt in sept. The room I was in before had a microwave already and so now I am without. Anything working is good enough for me. I can pick it up from anywhere in the GTA. Thanks, Darren.”

While waiting and hoping for a reply, Barber scanned the list of daily offers and requests of items of all kinds, chuckling at an offer for an opened bag of cotton balls. Just about anything in any condition was up for grabs, and Barber began to realize that he had things he could do without, like his stereo. His partially functioning stereo that he didn’t use anymore. But maybe someone else could.

OFFER: Stereo – Somewhat working I have a 3 CD stereo system that will play the radio and tapes but it has some problems with CD’s. The speakers are good and the unit is in pretty good condition itself, which lends me to believe that it could be fixed. I am located right by the Christie subway station. I am moving so I need to get rid of it by this weekend. Thanks Darren

One day, at the end of the summer of 2005, a single mom arrived at Darren Barber’s door on a small bike with a basket behind her seat.

He watched as she made two trips — once for the stereo itself, the other for the speakers. “There she was, on her little bike, with four bungee cables strapping the stereo to the basket,” he recalls, and you can almost hear him smiling through the phone.

“It just makes sense to do it this way instead of pitching it in the garbage. My stuff has a better home now.”

And that, says founder Deron Beal, is exactly the spirit of the “extremely grassroots” Freecycle Network.

The concept is simple: You own X. You no longer need or want X, but you don’t want to throw X away because it’s still useful. You offer X on a Freecycle community near you. People reply and you choose the recipient. Recipient comes to collect X. You are X-free.

While you can give and take just about anything, Freecycle has a few simple rules to keep the peace. Each group has its own set of rules (for instance, some permit offers for pets), but there’s zero tolerance for offering firearms, tobacco, alcohol drugs — legal or not.

Don’t offer yourself or your kids (yes, that’s an actual rule), and don’t make offers to trade — the idea is that there are no strings attached and that everything is free. If you think you can get away with breaking the rules, think again: the Freecycle ModSquad will get you. Just like baseball, you have two strikes and on the third, the moderator will unsubscribe you.

Freecycling isn’t just easier than trying to sell an item; it also gets it out of your hands faster and into the hands of someone who likely has a better use for it than you, says Beal, 38.

“If it was all about ‘gimme gimme gimme,’ then Freecycle wouldn’t work,” he explains from his home in Tucson, Arizona, where the selfless movement began in the spring of 2003.

Prior to founding Freecycle, Beal ran a local recycling program through a nonprofit organization travelling with crews around downtown Tucson, providing services to local businesses. While driving by the dumpster, they would notice “perfectly good stuff being thrown away,” including old computer monitors and desks. Instead of letting them pile up with real garbage, Beal and his crews collected them and called other nonprofit organizations to see if they could make use of these items.

“Word got around that we were taking this stuff,” recalls Beal. “And I said, ‘There’s got to be an easier way to do this.'”

He created a local online community for Tucson where people could offer and request items they didn’t want, and it grew “incredibly quickly, with hundreds of members joining overnight.”

Overwhelmed with the response, Beal thought, “This is too big, this’ll never work.”

But it did. To date, just over two years later, the Freecycle Network has grown by 2,200 per cent and has exploded into more than 50 countries, 3,100 communities and over 1.7 million members worldwide with a mission “to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources and eases the burden on our landfills.”

“The items being offered are ones that don’t have any monetary value, but you know it works and you want to get it to someone who can use it,” explains Beal. “If you make it easy enough, people will take it — which appeals to our lazy side.”

And, naturally, Freecycle is big with students. “They’re the ultimate scavengers,” Beal says. After all, no four-letter F-word stirs excitement in the cash-strapped student’s mind more than hearing that something is free. “If you have the chance to get an actual coffee table instead of using a bunch of milk crates, why not?”

Luckily for Alexis Kane, she never had to resort to milk crates. Since becoming a Freecycle member in April, the fourth-year University of Toronto student majoring in urban studies and sociology has furnished her four-bedroom apartment with a futon, a sofa chair, two couches, a bedroom dresser, a dining room table, four chairs and “a really cool vinyl armchair.”

The notion of Freecycle, she says, is well-suited to her line of studying. “Freecycle makes the most of available resources and it’s a great way of utilizing items,” remarks Kane. “Someone’s junk is another person’s treasure.”

People will give or take just about anything — literally. “There was one person, locally, looking for magnets because he said he was building a time machine,” recalls Beal with a chuckle. “Another woman offered her wedding dress from her first wedding.”

Kane, 21, wished she had more to give to the community. Realizing that her apartment would benefit from more space instead of two couches, she decided to post an offer on Freecycle.

OFFER: Full-size brown couch…no rips, or visible damage/stains that I can remember. It could use a couple extra pillows for more comfort but it does the job. Needs to be picked up September 1st from location near Spadina & College. Thanks! 

Kane’s offer didn’t go unnoticed, and soon, her pre-loved sofa found a good home — mine. My roommates and I were moving to a new house. We needed a couch. I pawed through the countless offers and requests and found Kane’s offer. I e-mailed her and on Sept. 1, my roommates and I filled our living room with a new (old) couch.

I was also looking for a printer and thought I had nothing to lose by checking out the Freecycle communities in Toronto. I found one being offered, just before my big move.

Offer: Bubble Jet Printer Canon BJC – 2100 (I think) ink jet printer. Last I checked it still works ok just needs a new cartridge. I’m moving so I need to get rid of it by this weekend. 

And, just like the woman who’d pedalled to Darren Barber’s door, I arrived (sans bicycle) to claim what Barber called “the family printer.” No one was using it anymore, he explained, so when he moved out of the house to study at U of T, he took it with him.

Once Barber realized he hasn’t used it in a year, he decided it should go to a better home. Besides, he says, “It’s too much work to try and sell things. It’s much easier and faster to give stuff away and to get people to take stuff off your hands.”

The last time I heard from Barber, he was still hoping to take a microwave off someone else’s hands, but had put his search on temporary hold. Whether or not he finds his microwave, he says he’ll be coming back to the Freecycle Network, along with members across the globe who are following the organization’s motto: “changing the world one gift at a time.

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