Wednesday, March 23, 2005
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Get free stuff on Freecycle

The online service matches people who need usable things with those who want to get rid of it.

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Imagine you had an old vacuum cleaner in questionable condition. It's time to get rid of the thing.

Many people would throw it away, too embarrassed to offer it to anyone they knew. Others would put it out on trash day, perhaps with a "FREE!" sign to encourage an anonymous passer-by.

More entrepreneurial folks would turn to eBay, figuring that if a piece of grilled cheese could sell for $28,000, they might get a few bucks for the old Hoover.

But, since its Roanoke-area debut last year, a place called Freecycle is where more and more people are turning.

Simply put, Freecycle is a network of people who communicate through an online message board to give things away. And take them.

Started in Tucson, Ariz., in 2003, there are now more than 2,500 Freecycle groups worldwide sporting more than a million members.

There are groups for Roanoke and Blacksburg as well as Covington, Floyd, Lynchburg/Bedford, Radford and the "Shenandoah Valley South." Roanoke's, with well over 1,000 members, is the largest.

Location is important. There's no shipping involved - this isn't eBay. No money changes hands; no bartering. It's simply, "I have this. Anyone want it?"

"The primary idea we want to promote is keeping usable stuff out of landfills and fostering a sense of 'community' in the process," said Kim Copeland, who helps moderate the Roanoke group.

Area Freecycle groups have gone from being a curiosity (and a place to get free stuff for what Copeland calls "the wrong type of members") to large, organized affairs with everything under the sun being listed for the taking.

"There are a lot more offerings" than when it first started, said Kimberly Cornely, a member of the Roanoke group. "I must get 15 or 20 e-mails a day of just people offering and looking for things. [When the group first started] it was probably half that."

Despite a slow start for the group, now there's always someone getting rid of something.

Or needing it. While many people post offers, others post requests. "I collect old video games," went one recent message. "If you have a box laying around in the attic or basement let me know!"

Cornely said she got a Singer sewing machine from a Freecycler. "It's an older one, but it's in a nice wood cabinet and it works perfectly," she said.

Free stuff is great, but the real purpose of Freecycle is to keep unwanted things out of the landfill.

"I have given away a recliner, a chair and some cookbooks," said April Parker of Roanoke, who read a magazine article about Freecycle and signed up.

Kathy Perdue gave away a swing set, but couldn't find anyone able to remove a claw-foot bathtub.

Cornely gave away an upright piano: "I never learned how to play it, I got it for free, so I figured I should just pass it on to someone who can actually use it."

Heather Jacobson, who described herself as "an avid Freecycler" said she's given away a large portion of her house. "A living room set, a washing machine and an oven are among the bigger things," she said.

Making it better was where all that went. "It was much easier to donate 25-year-old furniture to a young woman just moving out on her own than to figure out how much to sell it for, list it in the paper, etc.," Jacobson said.

Freecyclers help people who need it.

One woman, whose father has Alzheimer's and lives in her home, requested "buttons of all sizes, shapes, colors," because her father has been pulling them off his clothing. (People have helped, and the request is still pending.)

"I love it because you can do your heart good helping someone else," said Virginia Sikora, another member of the Roanoke group. "What goes around will come full circle when someone helps you."

In another instance, "One lady was posting for a friend," said Kathy Perdue with the claw-foot tub. "She [the friend] was leaving an abusive situation. She just took the kids and left." Freecyclers were able to help her get a fresh start. "We posted for a refrigerator for her and we got one," Perdue said. "It wasn't a nice one, but it works."

Perdue is the director of marketing and development for the Roanoke Valley SPCA. Looking to get some equipment for the shelter (and being a Freecycle member), she posted a request for empty printer ink cartridges. The SPCA works with a group in Arizona that's part of the Cash for Critters program, and it receives from $2 to $14 for each empty cartridge it sends in.

The request was a hit. In the past few months, the shelter has taken in more than $500. "We're saving landfill space and we're generating extra revenue for the animals," Perdue said.

By far, however, the likely power behind the tremendous growth of Freecycling is the innate consumer desire not to throw something out if it still works. If it's not worth selling, your options are limited: You can become a hoarder, or you can become a Freecycler.

It's all yours

There are often computer parts, appliances and furniture being given away on Freecycle. But there's also the inevitable miscellaneous stuff. Some of the most interesting:

· Old - but washed - socks. ("If someone needed them for a craft or for a rag or something," the poster said. No takers.)

· Women's underwear. "[Bras] size 36C, and some thigh-cut underwear that will fit somebody who wears up to a size 12 ... a black teddy and a white one, and a purple type one."

· A pink bathroom sink.

· Venison. "2 grocery bags of precut venison meat in my freezer going to waste," read the post. "My husband won't eat it."

· Jigsaw puzzles. Potentially frustrating ones: "I don't know if every single piece is in there for sure."

· A door. 36 inches.

On the Net:

To join one or more local Freecycle groups, go to www.freecycle.org and click "U.S. Southern" on the left side, then scroll to the very bottom for the Virginia group listings.

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