The fiscal freedom of Freecycle, a lesson best learned early

freecycleAre you a pack-rat? Do you have a habit of convincing yourself that one day your unused possessions may serve a purpose? Do you make impulse buys that ultimately end up gathering dust in the closet? Most of all do you enjoy receiving free stuff?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions then becoming a part of may be the perfect solution for you. is one of many Web sites designed to offer and receive goods freely with no strings attached. There is no currency involved, nor selling, trading or bartering; just simply giving.

A common misconception about the group is that one can obtain free stuff for nothing. Really the idea takes the concept of "what goes around comes around" into action: in order to keep the cycle in motion it is best to give and not just receive. Through the act participants are able to gain peace of mind in addition to fun stuff, all while building reciprocal communities.

All you need to join is an e-mail address, zip code and a desire to share. If your home region does not have a registered group with the network it is always possible to start one up, further broadening the Freecycle community.

Once registered you are able to make two kinds of posts: "offers" and "wants." These are pretty clear cut; "offers" put items up for grabs, and "wants" pertain to requests for specific things. To promote consistency and ease confusion, volunteer moderators inspect all inquiries before posting to the public. The coolest part about the network? The diversity in both available and desired goods.

Once there, you'll see everything offered from televisions to mechanical pencils, used cloth diapers to coupons, old couches to digital cameras. Thanks to Freecycle I created a traditional in-home darkroom by scoring a photo enlarger and timer, amongst other equipment. In return I have also been able to pass on assorted posters that I did not have the heart to throw away.

Freecycle was conceived in Tucson, Ariz. in May 2003 by Deron Beal, who worked for a small Tucson nonprofit providing recycling services to downtown businesses. As the story goes, Beal was annoyed with the amount of waste that ended up in landfills, ultimately tarnishing natural landscapes. He decided to take action by e-mailing a handful of friends and Tucson nonprofits regarding a free-trade of goods. The idea was to extend the life of common goods by turning trash to treasure, all while keeping functional and useful items out of landfills.

From there the concept of Freecylcing continued to grow. The organization's mission is to "build a worldwide gifting movement," while saving resources, reducing waste, and developing a sense of environmental and consumer consciousness. The ultimate benefit is creating a global gifting community while strengthening local communities.

Now more than 85 countries have picked up on the idea, keeping an approximated 500 tons of "garbage" out of dumps daily -- a big deal if you're one of those "going green" types on your campus.

Each country is broken down into regions, which are further broken down into local groups. There are currently 4,629 groups worldwide, boasting approximately 6,098,000 members. The Chicago chapter alone hosts 8,167 members and continues to grow weekly.

In order for Freecycle to be successful I feel it is important to make conscious decisions when responding to posts. As the group grows in popularity it is natural for quality items to get snagged fast. If a post catches your eye, think quickly yet rationally about what you respond to.

Perhaps the largest deciding factor when answering posts is location. When promised a good, whether via an offer or want ad, the person receiving bears responsibility for retrieving the items.

Also consider how to transport any given item in terms of size, weight and bulk. For instance, if you hope to snag 50 pounds of potting soil, but your source of transit is the bus, how willing would you be to lug the find around town? And for that matter, how would you accomplish this and not rip open the bag?

And: To what length are you willing to travel to pick up? Will you follow through with your commitment and actually make the steps to retrieve the item(s) in question?

Another aspect to ponder when responding to offers involves the item's practicality. Will it be of use to you or end up as clutter on your end? What happens if you retrieve an item that falls short of your initial expectations? An obvious solution: Offer it back to the world of Freecycle; chances are someone else out there can find a use.

Whether offering or wanting, do not get discouraged if your post does not generate responses. Due to the competitive nature of the cycle you are not guaranteed everything you inquire about; then again the item may find you when you least expect it.

In November I had made a want ad in search of a yoga mat. My post went unanswered, until January when a fellow Freecycler (who happened to live two blocks from me) e-mailed me offering their mat.

Always apply manners and honesty when making or responding to posts. Want ads generate more responses when a simple "please" and "thank you" are included.

When making an offer it is helpful to be as descriptive as possible. For example if you have an electronic, such as an ancient record player, be honest whether or not it is in working order. Be clear about your position in the description. In one instance, I traveled across Chicago for a record player in rush hour traffic, only to find the device was a bust. Though the post person meant nothing personal, I felt let down and regretted not knowing the condition ahead of time.

My final advice for getting the most out of Freecycle? Subscribe to the e-mail digest. With thousands of active members constantly swapping messages your inbox is bound to get swamped with post notifications, one after another. The digest limits your daily Freecycle e-mails to one or two a day, easing the task of browsing through inquiries.

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