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Posted
August 24, 2005

The Rise of the Share-Recycle Movement

The internet has spawned a new kind of recycling movement, in which people easily find new owners for things they are ready to toss out.

Who said you need money or a marketplace in order to reap the benefits of exchange? A new movement is arising that is locally based, globally coordinated and altruistically motivated to get perfectly good stuff headed for the landfill into the hands of people who need it. Most of the exchanges occur through online notices that publicize what’s available and what things people are looking for. It’s not a market, it’s not barter, it’s not a flea market. It’s a movement of well-structured commons designed to save the environment, promote localism and meet people’s everyday needs.

I visited the website of the local affiliate of Freecycle and found that there are 2,419 members who run ads like this one: “Offered: white 90-inch sofa, some light coffee stains but nothing that can’t be covered with a throw. I’m moving to a smaller place, can make do with a smaller sofa.” Here’s another ad, this one from “Ben”: “Anyone have any 20-ft. or longer I-beams kicking around? I’m looking for two to make a bridge.”

This movement might be neatly called the “Freecycle” movement, but unfortunately, the website that pioneered this trend, Freecycle, trademarked the name and is in other ways trying to assert proprietary control. (More about this in a moment.) Since I prefer open-access words, I’ll dub it the “share-recycle” movement.

The Freecycle Network™ claims the largest reach, with 3,024 Freecycle™ Communities and 1,584,448 Freecycle™ Members in more than fifty nations. Its tagline is “Changing the world one gift at a time.” (Isn’t that ubiquitous ™ symbol really annoying, especially when aggressively promoted by an enterprise dedicated to sharing?)

There are a number of other worthy share-recycle networks, some of them started by disaffected former members of the Freecycle Network™. They include Freesharing.org, which has links to over 220 locally managed groups serving over 87,500 members in the US and Canada. There are also colleague groups such as SharingIsGiving.org, FreeCycleAmerica.org, FreeUsables.com, Freesources Recycling Network and Altruists International.

Freecycle tells its history this way:

On May 1st, 2003, Deron Beal sent out an e-mail announcing the first Freecycle™ group to about 30 or 40 friends and a handful of nonprofits in Tucson, Arizona. At the time Deron founded The Freecycle Network, he ran a small recycling program called Downtown Don’t Waste It! with a nonprofit organization, RISE, which provides recycling services to downtown businesses, and transitional employment to Tucsonans in need.
As Deron and his crews recycled, rather than watching perfectly good items being thrown away, they found themselves calling or driving around to see if various local nonprofits could use them. Thinking there had to be an easier way, Beal set up that first Freecycle e-mail group in a way that permitted everyone in Tucson to give and to get. Freecycle was off and running.

Membership in most of these communities is free, and the local leaders are volunteers. Freecycle has an elaborate step-by-step process for creating your own group, with advice how on to moderate the community’s interactions.

The share-recycle movement bears a lot of resemblances to the fantastically successful craigslist, the locally based classified ads that people can post and read for free. The movement is also notable for the relative ease and low cost with which people can self-organize themselves to serve collective goals on a local basis. Moderators of Freecycle groups have to take an oath to observe a code of “Freecycle etiquette”: “You’ll agree to remain open to input from members or the occasional democratic polling of your members, but to make the tough calls and decisions in order to spare the rest the long debates. You’ll pledge to keep spam, ads and money-makers out of your group with the ‘two strikes, you’re out’ rule. And, finally, you’ll promise to come clean of your pack-rat ways and clean out your own garage before asking the same of others.”

Freecycle espouses an admirable philosophy:

We don’t strive for personal gain first through encouraging people to try to sell items. We only encourage magnanimous giving with absolutely no strings attached. You may however choose to encourage members to go to local nonprofit trading or bartering organizations as an alternative — we tend to find that local barter groups are kindred spirits and, while not directly gifting, they are doing lots of good in their own way. With Freecycle, though, there are no strings attached. Folks just give stuff away!

The splintering of Freecycle participants began when founder Deron Beal began to assert greater control over the entire system and its far-flung volunteer moderators. As reported by Matt Weiser in Grist magazine (May 19, 2005), Beal accepted a $130,000 grant from Waste Management, the firm associated with dubious, sometimes illegal behavior in dumping hazardous wastes.

This sponsorship — Freecycle’s only one — did not sit well with many members who thought it essentially invited Waste Management to use Freecycle to “greenwash” itself. Still, Beal had been running Freecycle on the side, and the grant enabled him to begin to manage the burgeoning Freecycle network full-time. As part of this assertion of control, Beal also trademarked the term “Freecycle” and began to require local moderators to give him access to local member information and transactions.

This, too, rankled many local moderators. If you’re part of a volunteer grassroots movement, it can be a real bummer to be told, corporate-style, to hand over local information and that you may only use the word “freecycle” “as an adjective (Freecycle group, etc.) and never as a noun or verb, or morphed into another word (freecycler, freecycling, freecycle the couch, etc. are no-nos).”

In the bigger scheme of things, it’s not clear to me whether these management decisions will impede the growth of the movement. Locally organized groups can still do their thing, and the international “branding” of the Freecycle name and operating processes may or may not matter. (It could actually slow the growth of Freecycle.) In any case, it’s a pleasure to see this sort of locally driven, community-based paradigm take off: an idea whose time has come.