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Putting the free’ in clutter-free

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OAKLAND, Calif. — When Katherine Bettis needs something, say a length of electrical tape, some blankets, pantyhose or even a long black wig, she goes shopping on www.freecycle.org.

When she has something to give away, such as a dog bed, a giant cabbage or a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, she posts her goods on the same site.

Bettis, a self-proclaimed Oakland, Calif., tightwad who writes the blog savemoneyyoucheapskate.blogspot.com, is not alone.

The Freecycle Network is made up of 4,775 groups with more than 7 million members across the globe. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving away and receiving free stuff in their own cities, towns and neighborhoods.

The site was launched in 2003 with just 30 members. In the past two years, more than 2 million people have signed on. Freecycle is one of several dozen sites where you can find free items and give away what you don't want or need anymore.

Forty years after the first Earth Day, designated to inspire awareness and appreciation for the environment, the movement seems to be growing as people strive to keep stuff out of landfills and build some good karma for themselves.

"I think there is a collective shift in mind-set happening," said Janelle Orsi, author of the "The Sharing Solution." "In part, it's because of what is happening with the economy, and in part it's because we know we should consume less to protect the planet."

Orsi, 30, a Berkeley, Calif., attorney who specializes in guiding clients who are sharing property, land and cars, published her how-to book last year. Since then, she has been told of several dozen websites where people can share, swap, barter, give and receive.

"I think everybody, all at once, has started to think it would make a lot of sense if we shared or borrowed or lent things much more," she said. "All the new social networking sites have allowed people to connect in new ways."

Orsi says a number of sites have sprung up recently where people can give and receive free goods and services.

"Almost all of them have started within the last year," she said. "And probably a third have launched within the last six months."

Orsi gave away about 150 juicy plums last year on a site called Neighborhood Fruit, and she likely will be rounding up more to give away this year.

"(The site) connects you with someone who likes to eat fruit or make jam so the fruit doesn't go to waste," she said. "A couple times I (gave away fruit), I got a sweet note back."

She also has used Web sites to find firewood and musical instruments for a children's program she runs.

There's no way to know exactly how many people take advantage of giving and receiving free stuff via the Internet every year, but the fact that there has been a recent jump in the number of websites points to greater interest, Orsi said.

What's more, she said, if society made it more difficult to just toss stuff out, the movement might be even bigger.

"Our society has made it so easy for us to throw stuff away," she said. "Our trash cans are huge, and it's not that expensive to get a truck to haul away stuff to a landfill."


Bettis, for one, doesn't let much go to landfills.

When she put the ad up for the free large cabbage (described only as "nice cabbage"), she received three responses.

"Someone came and got it that day," she recalled. She had purchased the vegetable on sale but soon realized it was too much for her to eat.

"It was an extraordinary large cabbage, and I wasn't going to eat it before it went bad. I could have put it in my compost bin, but I thought it would be better for the cabbage if someone could use it."

When she advertised free freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, the response was greater than with the cabbage.

"Several people said, 'It made my day to see that post.' A couple guys came over and sat on the porch and had a few and then took some home."

While Bettis, who is in her 40s, and others say they like the warm and fuzzy feeling they get from giving to others, they also are striving to help the environment.

"I really do care about the planet, but I don't go around making a big deal about it," Bettis said. "I just don't like to be wasteful, and giving and receiving is a great way not to be wasteful. I know other people put things on the curb for free and I see them out there deteriorating in the rain. If you put it on Freecycle, there is going to be someone who wants it."

Linda Brewer, of Danville, said she can't really afford another magazine subscription but loves reading Real Simple magazine.

"I read (the magazine) in dentist's office and thought it was cool," she said. "I got home, checked San Ramon Freecycle, and there was an offer for the last six issues. I picked them up and thoroughly enjoyed them, then passed them on to another friend who enjoyed reading them and then took them to her doctor's office. So much better than tossing in recycle bin."


Stephen Taylor, of Berkeley, received from Freecycle a tape deck, a five-disc CD player and a heavy-duty car jack.

"I suspect that with the older technology, people may be using (these sites) instead of going down to the recycling center because it's easier," he said. "If you can give away an old TV or computer monitor, it keeps them out of the landfill or the recycling system."

He tried to give away an old motorcycle tire but didn't have any takers.

"Someone had left an old motorcycle tire in my garage," he said. "It's been there about 20 years, but I got only one response."

Debbie DeSousa, 57, of Clayton, Mo., is an artist who uses free items she finds on Craigslist and in other places to create art.

"I think what's important is it gets people to think beyond just throwing away a water bottle because there are things you can do with them," she said.

She would know. She has made flower decorations from bottles and cans, golf clubs and free spray paint.

"It's a way to get people to think of stuff in a new way," she said. "Now, everything I look at, I always think, 'How can I turn that into a smile?'"


When he got married 18 months ago, San Francisco resident Chris Welch was astonished by the mass of packaging he and his bride received with their wedding gifts.

"I was blown away by the amount that came with each individual gift, most of it not recyclable as I understood it," said Welch, 40. "It was some of the popcorn stuff, which is actually biodegradable if you wet it down. Some of it was more Styrofoam and things like that, not biodegradable, and some included plastics and stuff that I didn't see had any recycling symbol on it."

The mountain of discarded boxes and plastics filled more than 20 big garbage bags, but he couldn't bring himself to just toss it.

"I didn't know if it was going to work, but I just put it all up on Craigslist in the free section," he said. "Then I got an e-mail from somebody who was doing a school fundraiser, and they had gotten some gifts donated to them. They were packaging up the gifts and needed a bunch of materials. The guy came by my house the next day and took it all away.

"It was gone from my house quicker than if I had put it out in the trash," Welch said. "Then I started to think about how many people get married every day and how many gifts they get and how much trash that is. I was amazed at how well it worked out. The power of the Internet, man."


In addition to the popular www.freecycle.org, fogster.com and craigslist.org, Janelle Orsi, of Berkeley, author of the "The Sharing Solution," points to the following sites as alternatives where people can go to give and receive free goods and services:



















(Oakland Tribune correspondent Sean Maher contributed to this report.)