By Sidney Drmay
It’s noon on the busiest day of my job and I’m high-tailing it across campus to Lake Devo to meet a stranger. I’ve got a backpack full of items and my stomach is growling. After a few minutes of standing in the hot sun I get antsy and send another message, trying to sound casual with an ‘I’m at Devo’ text. She’s ten minutes late and I have to be at Queen Street and University Avenue in 20 minutes to make my next meetup. Finally, a girl with dark brown hair wearing a black sweater and jeans walks up to me. We exchange quick hello’s and confirm our identities before pulling out our wares.
I hand her a box of Instax film, she gives me some tokens and a plain hot dog that she just bought at the cart across the street. I mumble a “thank you” and rush off campus to make my next trade, scarfing down the street meat as I go. This is my first meal since 6 p.m. the night before, and I’m already worried it won’t be enough.
Whether it’s through apps and sites like Bunz Trading Zone and Airbnb, the sharing economy is thriving and it’s helping students survive. With this alternative methodology, money is taken out of the equation: people trade things they have for things they need. When students are struggling to pay rent, buy groceries, get TTC passes and make their tuition payments, the sharing economy lets us utilize what we do have—random junk—and turn it into a meal, some tokens or a place to crash.
To test it out, I lived off Bunz and other free sources for a week. The rules were pretty simple: I couldn’t eat, travel or bathe if I didn’t use trading or some other free options to get what I needed, and I was strictly not allowed to use money. I made The Eye office in the Student Campus Centre my homebase and prepared for a hungry—and grimy—seven days.
My coworkers donated some of their old stuff to the cause—a creepy, pink stuffed cow, two candles, a pair of sensible heels, a tank with ‘Nobody knows I’m a lesbian’ printed on it, a button-down with skulls, Instax camera film, classic Trivial Pursuit, three beers and a cassette tape player with a broken hinge.
One thing I learned right off the bat is that people fucking love candles.
I threw them up on the Bunz app with some witty descriptions to capture people’s eyes and waited. My main ISO’s (in search of’s) were food, soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush and tokens. When you’re a student, this covers your minimal needs—eating, bathing and getting to class.
One thing I learned right off the bat is that people fucking love candles. I was fielding about 10 potential trades when it came to these babies. They were really nice candles, but damn, I didn’t realize I was in possession of trading gold.
I wanted to maximize my trade possibilities and get something good for them. I got a lot of offers; toothpaste, broccoli (both fresh and frozen), lipstick, soap and tokens. My phone was buzzing nonstop, letting me know that someone in this city wanted the items I’d listed. All I had to do was meet them somewhere along the TTC line. It was day one, so my main concern was getting home to the east end and back downtown the next day, which led me to trading those sweet, sweet candles for five tokens.
Bunz was created in 2014 by Ottawa native Emily Frances. It started on Facebook and has since grown to cater to different subgroups, whether it be people looking for housing, jobs, food, weed or even dates and new friends. A Bunz app, developed by a team including marketing director David Morton, launched earlier this year to house the different “zones” and now has more than 73,000 users.
Morton says the idea for the app came from the social climate affecting youth living in big cities, where everything seems to be getting more expensive by the day. “People don’t necessarily have much money or they don’t feel the need to spend their money on things, but they still need them. They need a ride but they don’t want to buy a car, so you can share the commute,” he says.
On day two, I had all my trades slated up for the next couple days. I made sure to get everything I needed to be a functioning human; fresh broccoli for the ‘Nobody knows I’m a lesbian’ tank, heels for some toothpaste and a toothbrush, Dove soap for the skull button-down shirt and the cassette player for a bag of rice.
People do not want to compromise their schedules at all. I did everything I could to be accommodating, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to eat.
I quickly realized that organizing a trade is difficult. People do not want to compromise their schedules at all. I did everything I could to be accommodating, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to eat.
I was able to work it out—because I didn’t have a choice—but if you’re actually attending classes and don’t work a flexible job, it gets tricky. People become flaky traders fast, so not only are you organizing the best trade you can find, you’re also trying to find traders who will actually show up when you’re standing on some random street corner in a part of the city you’ve never been to.
As desperately as I wanted that toothpaste and toothbrush, heels lady and I didn’t seem to have any correlation in our schedules.
By day three my offers were slowing down. My phone went silent long ago and it was clear that I had probably gotten rid of my best trade items—the creepy stuffed cow and cheap selfie-stick weren’t getting the same attention that those candles did. Not knowing where my next meal would come from, I browsed the app looking for any potential trades. I also started using the Free Zone, a group on Bunz where people give things away, like food and clothing.
Morton told me about a girl in Fort McMurray, Alberta, whose house burned down during the fire in May. She left her wedding dress behind, and the Bunz community provided one for her. Her wedding was on May 10, just a couple days later.
But I didn’t want a wedding dress, I just wanted to eat some food and take a shower. I was scrolling through the app, the trading zone and the food zone on Facebook while trying to ignore my stomach rumbles. Ryerson’s Good Food Room topped up my supply with granola bars and a jar of peanut butter, but neither was really keeping me going.
“People have got these cars and they’re just sitting there so why not use them for Uber? People have these rooms in their houses, why not use them for Airbnb?”
My coworker must’ve realized how pathetic I looked. He disappeared for 15 minutes, only to return with bread and jelly (I traded him for a beer). The clock on my computer read 4 p.m., which meant there were still four hours until I would be completing the last trades I had lined up for the week. I ended up with the fresh broccoli and rice, but I was quickly running out of options and still had four days left in my week.
The rice and broccoli mixture was pretty pathetic. It looked like someone had taken out all the good parts of a Salad King dish and left me with the rest. After having it for two meals, I was glad to see it go.
Ryerson economics professor John Isbister told me he believes that the sharing economy is an effective tool for students. According to a Pew Research Center study, 39 per cent of college graduates polled in the U.S. have used four or more different sharing economy services.
“People have got these cars and they’re just sitting there so why not use them for Uber? People have these rooms in their houses, why not use them for Airbnb? If people have a skill why not hire yourself out on a part-time basis?” Isbister says.
Despite how easy it seems, there is a bit of a risk. Meeting a random stranger off the internet is something my mom used to warn me about nearly every time I used the old family desktop.
I made sure to choose crowded areas, usually on campus in midday so that I had a better sense of security. Despite this, I still found myself feeling fairly nervous about meeting someone outside the SCC after dark. It’s hard to silence that little voice constantly reminding me that the next trader could be a serial killer. I don’t stress this much when buying things in a store.
“Established industries often operate with a lot of regulations with respect to insurance and safety and so forth,” Isbister says. “So the sharing economy blows up and they don’t have those restrictions, which is one of the issues.”
With systems like Bunz, users are able to leave reviews of those they traded with, flagging any suspicious or unwanted behaviour. This helps foster a sense of security within the community without the help of traditional regulations in other industries.
Lavinia Tanzim, a third-year creative industries student and avid Bunz user, says she’s never had a bad trading experience. “I try to pick public spots, either a subway station or in front of the Eaton Centre,” she says.
This precocious mentality is not unusual in the trading world. In the week that I lived off the sharing economy, I traded with a handful of women. Every time, they requested to meet in crowded areas, such as the middle of campus, or brought a friend along. If I hadn’t had an office full of people aware that I was leaving to do a trade, I probably would’ve done the same.
Despite the caution, Tanzim believes that Bunz has provided her with a sense of community in Toronto.
“The story of economy progress: something new comes along and if it’s successful it pushes out the old”
“I’ve met so many people through Bunz in Toronto that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I’ve met other users and we’ve hung out or we see each other at Bunz meetups and it’s really cool,” Tanzim says.
This idea is built into Bunz. The app, and others like it, are a community. In the end, people should be looking out for each other’s best interests.
Though the community aspect exists within the groups themselves, Isbister says that there is still the major problem of pushing out older, more traditional forms of economy and businesses. While Airbnb is a great way to find a room, it is pushing actual bed and breakfasts out of business.
“The story of economy progress: something new comes along and if it’s successful it pushes out the old,” Isbister said. He compares the shift to what happened before there were cars. People used to raise horses, then something better (and more convenient) came along. “Most people would think it’s progress to move to cars but it didn’t come without its personal catastrophe of ending horse raising, and that’s essentially what’s happening with this.”
After a full seven days of trading, I was more than happy to pay for my cheese croissant and tea on Monday morning. The ease of tapping my card on the debit machine and getting my order was nothing short of exhilarating. I winced a bit at the cost, but not having to run down the street and meet someone to get my food was worth it.
For most people, this is a pastime. They aren’t trying to survive off their trades like I was and didn’t understand my urgency to get stuff as soon as possible. I’m even more impressed by people whose main source of survival is trading. While it can be useful for students at times, it doesn’t quite supplement regular old capitalism yet. But like Isbister said, that won’t stop it from trying.
“In 20 to 30 years the whole world is not going to be run on this sharing economy basis but there’s a niche there and it’s going to survive,” Isbister said. “It’s a very fast-moving section of the economy.”
I’ll admit that I thought I’d do a way better job surviving off the trading economy but it was a lot more difficult then I expected. Not knowing where my next meal was going to come from was exhausting and I definitely will not be doing it again if I can help it.
Full disclosure: I cheated and brushed my teeth a couple days in. My mouth tasted like a garbage can.