Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

In a couple of months, Morgen and I are going to be moving. Naturally, we’ve got a million details to worry about, but one of the biggest is what to do with all our stuff. The usual answer is simply to pile it all in a moving van and unload it at the next place—or, if your new home is too small, put the extra stuff in storage. We’ve done this numerous times before, and frankly, we’re tired of moving so much stuff around. Sure, we’ll take some things, sell some things, and store some things, but there’ll still be a lot left over that we don’t know what to do with. So this time we’re going to try something different: freecycling, or free recycling.

As middle-class Americans go, we’re not very good consumers. We rarely buy things we don’t actually need, and we haven’t accumulated anywhere near the volume of possessions that most of our peers have. But still: we have too much stuff. Stuff that’s perfectly good, but which we simply no longer need. Random small appliances and electronic gadgets. Lots of books we’ve read and won’t read again. Years worth of National Geographic magazine. A tire pump. Tools. Plastic coat hangers. The list goes on. These kinds of things would be too much bother to sell on eBay, and they’d make little or no money at a garage sale. But we don’t want to simply throw them away, either, because they could be useful to someone. But who needs these things? Freecycling, the latest fad in ownership transfer, has the answer.

Yours for the Asking

The idea of freecycling is simplicity itself. You join an email list in your local region. When you have something to give away, you send a message to the list. Anyone else on the list who wants it sends you a reply—and arranges transportation, if necessary. There are no trades or barters, and no strings attached. Everything is completely free, period. And, of course, if you need something that hasn’t already been posted on the list, you can ask for it. Maybe you’ve moved into a new apartment that doesn’t have an ice cube bin, and someone else happens to have one, but didn’t think to list it. Or maybe it’s something larger or stranger, like a wheelbarrow, a rocking chair, or a 50-foot Ethernet cable. You never know: someone just might have what you need. As long as you can pick it up yourself, it’s yours.

Freecycling began in Tucson, Arizona in May 2003 as a way to help reduce the quantity of waste sent to landfills. Since then, it has spread to thousands of local groups in more than 50 countries. From what I’ve read, though, it sounds like most participants aren’t doing it for the environment. They’re doing it because it’s a convenient and free way to get rid of things you don’t need or acquire things you do. If it happens to keep landfills from overflowing too, hey, that’s a lovely bonus.

Free As in Beer, Not As in Speech

But all is not peace and goodwill in the world of freecycling. For starters, there’s the term itself, which I have been blatantly misusing for the last several paragraphs. The word Freecycle is a trademark of The Freecycle Network, the nonprofit organization based in Arizona that started the movement. Any local chapter that wants to be part of the network—as in being listed on the Web site’s search page—must follow strict guidelines about the use of the term Freecycle and the Freecycle logo. One must not, for example, use Freecycle or freecycling as a verb, or without a capital F.

The Freecycle Network has not only enforced these regulations somewhat heavy-handedly, but has taken legal action against groups that were not officially part of the network and used some variation of the word “freecycle” in their names. In going out of their way to protect their trademark, they’ve limited the spread of a valuable public service simply to exercise a right that should not, given the organization’s nonprofit status, result in any profit anyway. Another result has been the creation of several other free recycling networks that perform virtually the same function but are separate simply to avoid having to conform to rules that are perceived as excessively strict and unreasonable. All of this makes the process more confusing for the people who want to use it. It’s a pity—and a great irony—that a notion built on the free exchange of stuff for the benefit of the environment is hampered by needlessly self-imposed legal restrictions.

Growing Freely

But whether under the auspices of The Freecycle Network, as part of another organization, or informally among members of a school, church, or other group, the freecycling concept is gaining momentum. It could be the next Craigslist—a great idea that starts off small and soon becomes a way of life for its participants. In some urban areas, I’m sure you could furnish an entire apartment in a week or two by freecycling, not only saving money but doing a great favor to the people who need to get rid of their stuff.

Increasingly, too, I’ve been seeing a backlash against consumerism and its associated clutter, as people begin to realize that they’re actually happier with less stuff than with more. Even though I don’t buy a lot of merchandise, I am a bit of a pack rat, which is why moving can be so painful. As I look around at any room in my home, I realize that I’ve only used, or even thought about, maybe 10 percent of its contents in the last year. Do I really need the other 90 percent? Knowing that I’m going to have to pack and carry every one of my belongings I wish to keep, moving time makes me think long and hard about how much sense it makes to continue owning so many items that don’t actually enrich my life in any way. So instead, I’ll let them enrich someone else’s life. —Joe Kissell

More Information

The official site of The Freecycle Network is at

You can read about The Freecycle Network (including the trademark issue and several other controversies) in the Wikipedia; there’s also an article there about Freecycling generally.

Other articles about Freecycling include: