Freecycle. The gift of giving... and receiving.

By Albert Kaufman of Portland, Oregon who describes himself as "a visionary thinker, musician, and environmentalist."

FreecycleportlandI started FreecyclePortland in September of 2003. The idea is simple: a Yahoo list is used to organize peoples' offers of things they want to give away and connect people who want things with people who are offering them. Keep stuff out of the landfills, reduce, recycle, reuse - that sort of thing.

But what began as a simple idea has, over time, morphed into over a million people worldwide using Freecycle to give and take in 2,575 "official" groups. I say "official" because the birth of the Freecycle Network has spawned a number of similar efforts in addition to influencing groups like Craig's List to add a free section to their many sites. So, the number of people doing the Freecycle dance is probably many millions and the number who have heard about it through articles in People, USA Today, the New York times and through specials on the tube is many many millions.

I've been a big fan of Burning Man since my first visit in 2000. The city of 30,000 Black Rock Citizens runs strictly on a gifting economy which means that money is used hardly at all once you get to the event and there's a lot of gifting back and forth. It takes some time to get used to - and I'm still learning the ins and outs of how to give and receive gifts. Hint: always say "YES" then figure out what to do with it later. Freecycle takes the gifting economy I love and brings it into the "real world" and people seem to love it just as much.

I repeatedly hear people in line at the supermarket talking about how they recently got a new refrigerator or gave away an old couch on Freecycle. It makes me smile. Some of the people on our local list have made new friends and connected with dozens of people through their exchanges. We've had Freecycle events - giveaways at the Last Thursday on Alberta Street event where many people come, lay out blankets, and give everything away - it's fun watching people who are new to the idea come up and then their eyes light up "you mean I can just take this?"

I often wonder what the world would be like if it were run on a gifting economy. How much could be changed by switching models - no more currency traders, no more Wall Street, no more Walmarts. At the co-housing community I live in (Cascadia Commons) there is an exchange box where people put things and often it's such a joy to go and see what's there - in fact the shoes I'm wearing right now are from there. Coffee shops around Portland have started providing bookshelves where there's a book exchange going on - something I thought would be a great idea years ago. How much further can we take it? How would the world be different if the economic system were changed?

Anyway, for now I'll keep moderating the local list with my 8 co-moderators and we'll probably grow from our current 16,000 members to - well, who knows? There are also about 40 groups all over Oregon, so if you live in Gresham, you'll want to go to to find the Freecycle group closest to home. It's been a fun and interesting ride so far...


  • Jonathan (unverified)

    I've never used Freecycle, because I hadn't heard of it until now. But even now, I am still inclined to give things to Goodwill, or other organizations that try to help out disadvantaged people. If there is a market for goods in a way that helps out people who can't afford to buy new stuff, then hasn't the goal of reusing been accomplished while helping someone? Or would you simply give to both, depending on the item?

  • Ken (unverified)

    We are in the process of moving, and trying to clear out our garage. We had several things which probably wouldn't have been that useful as Goodwill donations: a lawn mower, edger, and a set of left-handed golf clubs.

    The response from freecycle was immediate, and there was some satisfaction in meeting the people who were going to use the donation. And they also hauled the items.

    The only negative to the experience is that several times I would get enthusiastic emails from someone interested in the item, who then they didn't follow up by phone. But there was always someone else also interested.

  • iggi (unverified)

    Goodwill is an unbelievable scam...someone's used underpants for the same cost as a new pair, a broken betamax player, a torn up couch riddled with lice. ostensibly sold at exorbant prices to help out the handicapped but in reality to keep the regional manager of the NW at a 6 figure income.

  • Deron (unverified)

    Thanks to Albert for making the Freecycle Network so huge in Portland. We are keeping 50 tons a day out of landfills as a result and allowing people to receive the gift of joy when they give stuff away. The humblest of us all is a philanthropist in a free cycle of giving. And as Albert says, we are changing the world one gift at a time. Side note: locally in Tucson about 70 nonprofits are also members receiving gifts and we encourage local members to give preference to starving local nonprofits. The Goodwills of the world are doing fine, it's the small guys you can now help too... Have fun with it. Three cheers for Mother Earth and three cheers for a little more room for compassion in society! Deron Founder guy. The Freecycle Network

  • (Show?)


    Thanks for the work and for the link. I knew about Craiglist but not freecycle.

    I agree with izzi about Goodwill. I'd much rather donate to the Portland Rescue Mission.

    Just a grain of salt about extending freecycle to our whole economy. Those shoes you got from the bin -- where do you think they were made? Where was the leather tanned (or nylon or cotton woven)? How about the rubber for the sole? Etc.

    A gifting economy wouldn't work at all in our modern industrialized age. It's a nice idea for small scale exchanges, but we are all dependent more than we'd like to admit on the globalized capitalist economy, including Walmart, Wall Street, and the like.

  • Bill Dysinger (unverified)

    Thanks to Albert for such a great idea and for making it happen! Since I have become a member, I have given and received many items. The most memorable was a top-of-the-line gas cook stove which couldn't be used in the previous owners house because they did not have gas. I know get lots of stuff baked for me to perfection and am one happy camper!

  • (Show?)

    A gifting economy wouldn't work at all in our modern industrialized age. It's a nice idea for small scale exchanges, but we are all dependent more than we'd like to admit on the globalized capitalist economy, including Walmart, Wall Street, and the like.

    I wonder. Much of the world does without Walmart (and so far I'm doing just fine without one in Beaverton. Which economy would be better for the planet? Right now we're headed towards a future in which all of the resources are used up and all other species are driven to extinction. We're not even doing that well feeding and clothing billions of people let alone providing them with clean air and water. So, I wouldn't say that a dependency on a globalized capitalist economy makes a lot of sense.

    I think moving towards alternatives is the way to go. And perhaps it will start small, but if a million people are already using Freecycle, there's no reason why everyone can't partake at least for some of their needs. It's been fascinating to me this morning as I watch the comments on this blog and the items offered and wanted on FreecyclePortland. I say On with the experiment and let's see how far we can take it!

  • Yoram (unverified)

    Many mixed feelings about Goodwill. For those who aren't aware, the local Goodwill Exec. made $785,000 in 2003.

    The story.

  • (Show?)

    I too have mixed feelings about Goodwill. The desk I'm sitting at right now, I bought for $10 and then pulled some Christopher Lowell shabby-chic magic on it and it looks pretty damned good, if I do say so myself. BUT, I bought it before I read the feature exposing the pay structure of Goodwill Industries and how incredibly unfair it appears to be. It's one of those things people justify by saying that doing some good is better than no good - when it's obvious that there's some room to do more good for people. But that guy that does the commercials who travels a lot seems so darned happy.

    And don't get me started on Walmart. I haven't stepped foot in one in close to a decade and just the sight of one makes me queasy. Sam Walton was an evil genius. But I digress...

    Freecycle is not something that I've used personally but my ex-husband did to get rid of some of the things we had lying around. I didn't realize that it was something that was started right here and how big it's become. Congratulations on such a positive and successful brainchild. And thanks for the reminder... I know I have a ton of stuff I could easily freecycle. :-) I'd just have to get organized and do it, but one step at a time.... lol.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    You know, if this thing went National, it would make truck drivers "King of the World".

    I can see it now, the truck driver shows up at the wheat farm, has food, dairy, a washing machine, and an old blue dress up for church suit in size 40. Happens the farmer is a size 40 (the truck driver knew this of course, its on the Internet). The farmer trades 200 lbs. of wheat for the suit, 5 lbs of cheese, a case of canned pears, and 3 packages of chocolate cookies. The farmer then waits for the next truck to pull up.

    Hmmmm. Well, maybe you can keep it in Portland.

  • (Show?)

    I can see it now, the truck driver shows up at the wheat farm...

    This has actually spawned a whole bunch of similar groups around the country:

    Gleancycle - have extra pears, post it and see who'd like a box of pears Fleacycle - for those who want to involve some $ in the transaction

    and many varieties in between - Free Stuff on Craig's List, and hundreds of others who'd like to catch the gifting wave :)

  • (Show?)

    I'll be on KPOJ 620am on Monday, May 2, 2005 at 7:50am. Come listen in!

  • Paris (unverified)

    Cool comments... Freecycle Portland great site.

guest column

connect with blueoregon