Living free and clean

Websites and movements such as the Freecycle Network and the Freeconomy community have created further interest in the concept of the gift economy and made living for free a distinct, if difficult, possibility, writes Joseph Galvin.

It doesn't look like much when you first open it up. A bland beige backdrop with a series of classifieds both looking for and offering a wide range of items. Toasters, sofas, cabinets, computer parts...all the usual suspects fill out the list. So far, so Buy and Sell. The difference is that everything is absolutely free.

The website in question is the Freecycle Network, where in Dublin alone over 3,000 people advertise all kinds of goods for the princely sum of...well, nothing. There is no limit to what is available; furnishings, televisions, microwaves, computers, bicycles and even cosmetics comprise just a few of the items on offer. It may sound too good to be true but it works and over 6m people throughout the world reap the benefits.

Perhaps a better summation of the network comes from Dublin Freecycle user Maria Murphy: “A friend of mine introduced me to Freecycle...she has given away lots of unwanted household materials and got some things she needed also...given today's economy it has to be one of the best websites available - the major plus being that you are not lining the pockets of newspapers by paying for advertisements and recycling helps others as well as the environment.”

Freecycle's mission statement is simple: "[To] build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources and eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.” A noble and ambitious aim, perhaps, but the project grew from very humble beginnings.

In May 2003, Arizona native Deron Beal sent out a short email to approximately 40 friends and some local charity organisations announcing thhe birth of the Freecycle Network. Beal worked for RISE at the time, providing recycling services for local businesses. Shocked at the waste of usable items, he felt motivated to kickstart the Freecycle movement.

Since then, the project has mushroomed in size. Cities in over 85 countries, including Ireland, now have their own Freecycle Networks. However, the project is not without its critics. Angry at a lack of flexibility and, in their view, over zealous control from across the Atlantic a group of UK based freecyclers split from the community to set up their own network; Freegle.

At the time of the split, Neil Morris voiced his concerns to the Guardian: "My concern at the moment is that the senior leadership of the Freecycle Network doesn't recognise the need for any change or acknowledge that there are other approaches that might work. Almost everything seems to be non-negotiable."

However, perhaps local branches taking ownership of the movement is the next natural step. Also speaking at the time of the split, Nan Bixby, hub coordinator for the Freecycle Network in the US, responded in the Guardian saying: "Sadly, there are times when groups feel they can better serve their local community in other ways. When this happens we wish them well and continue in our efforts to save local landfills. We always look for moderators who are local to the community even if that means temporarily, such as in the case with the Brighton group, we may have interim moderators not local until a local moderator can be found.” Despite Bixby's comments, however, Beal has been critical of the move, accusing Freegle of hijacking Freecycle's UK membership base for its own ends.

However, the politics are irrelevant. Both Freegle and the Freecycle Networks are primarily driven by their grassroots members and, no matter what happens, there will always be enough interest and initiative amongst those members to keep the movement going. Despite the global reach, Freecycle operates at a local level and no matter what schisms take place in the upper echelons of the organisation, the desire for the concept will remain strong among the local branch members.

Indeed, the concept of the so-called gift economy seems to be going from strength to strength. Undoubtedly drawing some inspiration from Freecycle (where he managed to source the caravan which is now his home) Mark Boyle started the Freeconomy movement in the UK. In the Freeconomy community, members offer not just consumer goods but their time, their skills and even their homes to help out their fellow members. Idealistic? Possibly, but it is taking off.

A quick browse of the Freeconomy forum at reveals a small but growing membership dedicated to the Freeconomy's “philosofree”: “The Freeconomy Community's aim is to help reconnect people in their local communities through the simple act of sharing. Not only is sharing our resources better for the environment, it saves you money and builds friendships with those people who live closest to you. It is what we call a WIN-WIN-WIN situation.”

For his part, Boyle has totally abandoned the use of money. Disillusioned with the waste and excess of modern consumer life, he stepped out of mainstream society. He now grows his own food and makes or borrows what he needs to live, his contact with the outside world maintained via a solar powered laptop and a mobile phone that can only receive calls. Boyle may be an idealist but his Freeconomy is surprisingly practical – and beautiful in its simplicity.

Despite the noble aims, the Freeconomy's membership remains relatively small in comparison to its older, more straightforward brother Freecycle. Nevertheless, the opportunity is there for anyone to take advantage of the skills and services on offer.

The old saying goes that “there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.” While it is unlikely that consumer stores will be trembling in their boots any time soon, initiatives such as Freecycle and the Freeconomy show just what can be achieved with an Internet connection and an idea. All you really have to spend is your time.

Living free and clean in Ireland

Currently there are 20 Freecycle groups in Ireland comprising approximately 15,000 members. All you require for membership is a desire to contribute and an address in the group's area. The largest groups are, unsurprisingly, centred around the larger cities with Galway and Cork being perhaps the most active communities.

A quick browse of what's available in the Dublin area reveals just how much Freecycle has to offer. Computers, good quality furniture, mattresses and beds, books, music equipment...the list may not be endless but it is certainly long. The items on offer may not be the latest and greatest of their type but they are often too good for landfill. It is a simple, effective idea; rather than piling up unnecessary waste let's try to find a home for the items we no longer have use for.

Irish Freecycle members are almost uniformly positive in what they have to say. Joey O'Gorman said: “I haven't used it in a couple of years but did get a great comfortable couch when living in rented accommodation and a microwave which lasted for years.” However, most members warn that items tend to get snapped up quickly; whatever you may be looking for it is best to visit regularly.

Criticisms were few and far between although Dublin Freecycle user Don Lucey did criticise the website's layout. Despite that, he praised the website's “environmentally friendly mission.” And while there have been teething difficulties behind the scenes, as noted earlier, it is hard to see how the wheels could come off this initiative, particularly given the current economic circumstances.

The Freeconomy community, meanwhile, has a much smaller membership but one that is growing slowly and by the day. Currently there are 155 members in the Dublin area alone, offering a wide range of skills to those who need them. Again, signing up is easy and finding members in your locality could not be easier with the launch yesterday of a discussion forum specifically for Dublin members.

The important thing to note that the Freeconomy community is not just about practicality; it aims to be a community in every sense of the word. As such, members offer guided tours of the city, challenge others to games of chess and even offer to listen to those who need a friendly ear. And if you need help building a shed? Well, that's on offer too.

It is unlikely that you will take the drastic step of doing away with currency entirely as Boyle did. However, it is hard to see a catch... and who knows? You might find exactly what you need for absolutely nothing.