Web site helps recycle one person's trash into another person's treasure
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Looking for a nice couch and love seat? What about a hot tub, set of mixing bowls or maybe the code to $3.75 worth of expiring Fandango movie bucks?
Put away your wallet.
All those items were being offered for free recently to people in the Pittsburgh area through an online hand-me-down network called Freecycle.org.
Members of the nonprofit group give away and get things in their hometowns with the goal of keeping useful but unwanted "junk" out of landfills.
The idea was born four years ago in Tuscon, Ariz., as a way to help save the desert landscape. Since then, the group has grown to a worldwide network of 3.5 million members.
People join -- for free, of course --by finding or launching a group in their community at www.freecycle.org.
Local networks are moderated by volunteers who screen "offer" and "wanted" postings and help enforce a few rules. Locally, there are groups for the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, along with separate networks for Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Washington counties.
People can join multiple groups, although the idea is to stick close to home so they don't have too far to go to pick up their free treasures.
The chief rules are that everything must be free, legal and appropriate for all ages. That means no weapons, prescriptions, alcohol, tobacco or pornography. Posters can't offer services, either, such as baby-sitting.
Just about everything else is OK.
"It's truly the idea that one man's trash is another man's treasure," said Ann Hertzog, who moderates the Cambria County chapter and supervises other moderators across the country.
Ms. Hertzog, who volunteers about three to four hours a day helping the group, also is an active free-cycler.
She has given away clothing, bed frames, a kiddie pool, packing material (popular stuff for people who regularly use eBay) and two 19-inch televisions.
Some of the things she has picked up include a wood chipper and two backyard swing-sets for an all-terrain vehicle club to which she belongs. She also snagged a brand new 11-foot by 14-foot piece of green wall-to-wall carpeting that she estimates saved her more than $500.F
The carpet was offered by a woman who replaced it with hardwood floors when she moved into a new home. Without the Freecycle network, "It would have ended up at the curb," Ms. Hertzog said.
Other Freecycle members have reported saving hundreds of dollars on such things as furniture, school clothes, exercise equipment and computer monitors.
Since Freecycle took off, smaller Web-based recycling groups also have emerged, such as www.sharingisgiving.org and www.freesharing.org. The site www.Craigslist.org also has an area where people can list items available for free.
At Freecycle, members can ask for anything, "But we ask that it not be excessive," Ms. Hertzog said.
"You'll have someone ask for an Xbox [video game system]. No one is going to give one of those away."
Within the last week, "wanted" posts on the Allegheny County site popped up for an iPod, pick-up truck and global positioning system for a car.
Such requests miss the point of the network, which is eliminating waste, Ms. Hertzog said.
"It's not for people too cheap to go out and buy something," she added.
Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
Members who post "wanted" items are expected to offer some of their leftovers in return.
For people who forget the giving part, "I try to send them a note and say it would be nice if you offered something," said Eric Haver of the West End, who helps moderate the Allegheny County group.
"Vultures" looking to score free stuff to sell on eBay or elsewhere also are frowned upon, Mr. Haver said.
Rules differ slightly among groups, but in general, people asking for something who intend to sell it are expected to state their intentions upfront, Ms. Hertzog said.
"Don't take advantage of an old lady [who] gives away a Mrs. Beasley doll," only to see it the next day fetching hundreds of dollars on e-Bay, she said.
Along with free riches, there are plenty of offerings that appear rightly destined for the dump. Posts on the Allegheny County network this week, for example, included "eight cinder blocks, not necessarily in the greatest condition," and a small bag of IAMS cat food "opened but very little used."
Typically, givers use the first-come, first-served method to decide who gets popular items. Others prefer drawing names from a hat or giving nonprofit causes the first shot.
Lately, some moderators have been encouraging participants to wait 24 hours before awarding an item.
"Let people have a chance to respond," Ms. Hertzog said. "Maybe the first [to respond] is not the one who will make the most use of it."
One drawback to joining the group can be a flood of e-mails. Big-city groups can generate thousands of messages per month.
One way to manage the flow is to set up a filter that funnels the Freecycle e-mails into a separate folder.
Other options are to sign up for a daily digest of e-mails, which will deliver them in batches once or twice a day, or opt out of e-mails and view posts directly on the message board.
The disadvantage of the last two options is that popular items may be gone before the member sees them.
Members also are instructed to take reasonable measures to protect their safety and privacy. People leery about strangers coming to their home often arrange to meet in a public place such as a mall parking lot or a gas station.
Other tips: Be polite and don't be a no-show for appointments to pick up an item.
For anyone wondering if free-cycling is worth the effort, Ms. Hertzog's advice is simply to give it a whirl. "If you don't think you have anything to offer, when you come to the group, you'll have a wide awakening," she said.
"The simplest thing that doesn't mean anything to you will mean the world to someone else."
First Published June 27, 2007 9:06 pm