Trading post turns trash to treasure
Nov. 3, 2004
Jacqueline Mah
Staff Writer

Freecycle saves monk-shaped cookie jar from trash bin

Freecycle is for two kinds of people, pack rats and yard sale junkies ­ and, don't judge, we all have it in us.

For the pack rats, what are you going to do with those cardboard boxes taking up space in the basement? What about those soon-to-be-expired coupons, or that monk-shaped cookie jar a well-meaning friend gave you that now just collects dust?

Via the Internet, area packers have found a way to chuck the junk, without the guilt of throwing it away ­ and even meet nice people along the way.

For the yard sale junkies, like Bridgette Neil, 48, Freecycle proves that one man's trash is indeed another man's treasure. The online trading post has taken the toil out of yard-sale shopping and the embarrassment out of rooting through strangers' curb-side trash heaps.

It's a virtual-reality junk pile where one can find gems, like that perfect Tuscan Sunset wall glaze that Susanne Wiggins had been looking for, or the king-sized head- and footboard that Jen Czarniak scored and swears she would have picked out herself at a store.

Neil, Wiggins and Czarniak, all of Germantown, are "Freecyclers," participants in a growing online yard sale where everything is free and for the taking.

While anything can be sold on eBay these days, the allure of Freecycle is for people who just want to get rid of their junk, without the hassle of shipping it, Wiggins, 35, said.

Why go through "the process of taking a picture, posting and going through the shipping fees when you can just keep it in the community?" Wiggins asked.

And the response has been great. Freecycle, which started in Tuscon, Ariz. in May 2003, has cropped up in major cities across the country. There are two Freecycle groups for Montgomery County residents, and Wiggins said a Freecycle Chevy Chase and Rockville might be in the works.

Czarniak, 34, remembers her first posting back in March. Within 20 minutes, she got eight replies, she said.

There were "tons and tons and tons of boxes down in my basement," she said. "I never thought of giving those away, but I did."

In addition to the cardboard boxes and packing material from her basement, Czarniak has also given away a clock, toys, computer "stuff," a couch, a bookcase, coupons from an Entertainment book, a coffee table and a three- or four-foot-tall stuffed Tigger. "God bless the girl's uncle who gave it to her, but we didn't need it anymore," she said.

All of the initial contacts are made online, on a Yahoo! group Web site, which anyone can join with a free account. But when there is a match, participants pass items along the old-fashioned way ­ from hand to hand.

Wiggins said she handed her ceramic monk-shaped cookie jar, with the inscription: "Thou shalt not steal," off to its next owner at work.

"I just popped downstairs," she said. The other woman "put it right in her car, no parking necessary, and went on her merry way."

Another time, a woman and her daughter came to Wiggins' house to pick up a child's art easel that Wiggins no longer needed.

"The little artist came along, and her face lit up when she saw it," she said.

Wiggins' own delight, perhaps more than the Tuscan Sunset wall glaze, was finding a worm composting bin. Wiggins, it should be noted, works for the county division of solid waste. She used to give recycling lectures around the county, and she takes seriously the motto "Reduce, Recycle, Reuse."

Freecycle is the perfect way to accomplish the third R, she said.

"We think about getting rid of stuff. ... But reusing stuff is so much better," she said.

And with an average of 25 new postings on the Montgomery-Frederick Freecycle group per day, it seems people agree.

"It astounds me how much stuff changes hand on our site and in the county every day," she said.

Perhaps just as astounding as the quantity of items handed off, are the kinds of things being given away, or even asked for.

In October, postings included baby formula, a 1991 Ford Taurus (that needed body work) and nicotine patches.

One member placed a "wanted" notice for "a Cat in the Hat hat."

"Everyone was so nice about my search for Thing 1 and Thing 2 outfits," the person added, referring to the Dr. Seuss characters.

Another member posted a plea for an orange tabby kitten on behalf of her daughter.

"My daughter has wanted an orange tabby kitten for over two years now. We are seriously looking now but aren't having very much luck. She would like a Male. She even dreams about this kitten. She dreams that it has a white belly (that is not a requirement, but it would be nice). If you know of anyone giving away orange tabby kittens or for a small fee, please let me know," the woman wrote.

These seekers could become full-fledged Freecyclers, Wiggins predicts.

"Oftentimes someone who joins because they want something turns into someone who offers, because they realize the joy in giving," she said. "I think it's great. Not that I'm biased or anything."