When Kelly Cleland’s 16-month-old daughter grows out of her clothes, toys, and baby furniture, Kelly knows how to find these unwanted items a new home quickly. She puts an ad on the Mercer County and Princeton freecycle groups.

Within a few hours, she has several responses from people interested in using her items. She looks through the E-mails, giving preference to people who send polite requests. She agrees upon a day and time with the recipient, puts the item outside, and they’re gone.

In the meantime, she keeps her eyes on the postings for items her daughter might need in her next stage of development.

Cleland first became involved with freecycle two years ago, before her daughter’s birth. She heard about the group from her sister, who was involved with freecycle in another state. Cleland wanted to both clear out the house in preparation for the baby, and see if she could find infant items she needed.

“We didn’t like the thought of buying stuff new when we could get it secondhand and then just turn around and give it to somebody else when we’re done with it,” she says. “We think of it more as borrowing things from the universe. Instead of buying things and selling them, we sort of borrow them and then put them back.”

The two freecycle groups in the area, one that covers Mercer County and another that focuses on Princeton, do almost no marketing. One moderator has a bumper sticker on her car. Another puts up signs at Whole Foods on Route 1 and Whole Earth on Nassau Street. Primarily through word of mouth, membership has grown steadily. The Mercer County group now has 5,855 members and 6,676 people belong to the Princeton group.

These two groups are part of a national freecycle organization, founded in Tucson, Arizona, by Daron Beal in 2003. It is a network of local and city groups that promote reuse through gifting among members.

Beal began the organization when he tried to give away a bed, but learned that local thrift shops wouldn’t accept beds due to health concerns. Wanting to recycle the usable bed, he started a network of friends online and offered the bed. In the six years since, freecycle has formed over 4,600 community groups and more than 6 million members have joined.

“It took off like wildfire,” said Judy Kutin, the Princeton moderator. “Beal started it in 2003, I heard about it in 2004 and I was the moderator by 2005.”

Anything can be given away as long it is free (no strings attached), legal, and appropriate for all ages. No alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or drugs are allowed. Freecycle claims that the network of community groups is currently keeping 500 tons of assorted stuff per day out of landfills.

According to statistics provided by Jim Lee, the Princeton group co-moderator, over 12,500 offers have been made on that group since 2004. “It’s reasonable to assume that we have kept at least 12,500 items out of the landfill in the five years that the group has been in existence,” he wrote in an E-email.

“People usually hear about freecycle from their friends,” says Anne Soden, who moderates the Mercer County group, the first group to be founded in this area. The group started in October, 2003, just five months after Beal sent out his first E-mail, with two members.

Soden joined in April, 2005. A long-time animal rescuer and the owner of eight cats, Soden got involved when the former moderator faced pressure for not allowing animal postings (the Mercer County group doesn’t allow animal postings, the Princeton group does).

Judy Kutin, a mother of three who now moderates the Princeton group, found out about freecycle in 2004. “I was pregnant and I was on some message board. People were talking about getting items and giving away items on freecycle. I said, what’s that? The Princeton group had just started around that time.” When the original moderator moved away, she volunteered to take over the duty. Since then, the group has grown steadily. Over 2,200 new members joined the Princeton group in 2008, a 65 percent increase from the previous year.

There are three types of postings on freecycle. An offer posting is an item to be given away. A wanted is an expression of a need or desire for an item. A wanted ad can remind members of unused items they may have sitting in their basements that someone else could put to use. A curb alert is posted when a member sees usable items placed on the curb. They will post a notice to the group with the address so that someone who wants the item can come get it from the curb.

While all types of items are given away, children’s items are especially popular. “The kids grow up and the items are still usable,” Soden said. “Children’s clothing, children’s toys, car seats, strollers, that type of thing.” Kutin says broken items are the most common on the Princeton list, together with household and children’s items. She says that people are generally very honest about what they are offering. “They’ll say ‘Offer: Couch, approximately 20 years old, has a few cat scratches on the side.’ So people know what they are getting. I’d say 90 percent of the time people are very honest and forthcoming with accurate details. Which is appreciated by all.”

Soden sees the most unusual postings among the wanteds. “People sometimes get a little out of hand. They ask for cars. People will say, ‘well I’d like a Mercedes Benz.’ People will get a little annoyed and then we have to calm them down and say let’s be realistic and not ask for things that people aren’t going to put in the trash. You get people who want plasma TVs, expensive things that people are not likely to throw out. But they’ll try anyway.”

Are cars given ever away on the local freecycle? Yes, says Soden. “But mostly the cars, if they are given away, are not running. They’ll put the year and the mileage and they’ll say it needs work or something like that. If they are going to give it away, naturally the person who is going to take it is going to have to invest money on their own.”

While certain items are more commonly given away than others, the variety of offers runs the gamut, from an extra pork loin someone has in the freezer, to broken plates taken by a ceramic artist to make mosaics with, and from moving boxes — which are offered, used, and reoffered time and again — to houseplants.

Soden sees a peak in postings in January, when people are home, spending their time indoors, and cleaning out the house after the holidays. Record months for postings were January, 2008, and November 2008, just before and after the holidays, when over 2,000 postings were made each month. “In the summer people are busier and there is not as much posting,” said Soden. “People in the summertime often post for lawn mowers and edgers, sheds, plastic furniture, and outside things.”

In the same way that Beal couldn’t find an outlet for his bed, Cleland had trouble finding places to recycle cribs and car seats. She found her back-up car seat on freecycle. “Every parent has to assess how comfortable they are using something like that secondhand,” she said. “There is a lot of fear mongering about using certain kinds of second-hand items. I really don’t feel good about throwing those kinds of things into the landfill. Seeing something like a car seat as disposable really bothers me. On the other hand, I feel like it’s important to be conscientious about its quality and how old it is. I think it’s a good thing for people to be able to make their own decisions.”

A retired corporate administrative assistant, an urban technology worker, a mother and part-time math teacher — the people who manage the local freecycle groups represent the diverse demographics also shared by the members.

Soden, the Mercer County moderator, considers herself a very ecologically concerned person. She makes sure to bring along reusable bags when shopping. “I don’t like to throw away things that are salvageable,” she said. “I’ve been that way all my life. I just believe in saving the environment. That’s how I got involved.’

After retiring from 15 years as an administrative assistant with Johnson & Johnson, she was looking for something that would both keep her occupied and that would allow her to help the community. “This just caught my eye,” she says. Soden lives in East Windsor, where she grew up, went to school, and spent most of her life. In her spare time, she bowls, golfs, cares for her cats, and feeds a colony of stray dogs that live under a loading dock.

Judy Kutin is a mother of three, in her late 30s. She teaches math part-time at the Cambridge School in Pennington. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Princeton for the past seven years. Although she was not active in environmental issues before she joined freecycle, she said her involvement with the group has had a positive influence on her whole family.

“My three children always talk about it,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t need these clothes anymore. Can we freecycle them?’ My six and four-year-old say that. In fact, they don’t want to throw away anything now. Any little thing. They’ll say, can we freecycle this? I’ll say no, that’s scrap. It’s like a little wood chip. No, that’s very kind of you. It’s had a profound effect on them as well.”

Jim Lee, who recently became the co-moderator of the Princeton group, works in the technology business for a large corporation in Manhattan. He grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in Princeton for the past 11 years. He first saw the site referenced on an environmental website and has been a member since around 2006 or 2007.

“It’s a great way for me to get rid of excess stuff and it’s also been an interesting way to get stuff that I’ve been looking for and didn’t really want to go out and spend any money on,” he said.

Lee and his wife have gotten into the habit of “rescuing” items from the curb. Instead of posting a curb alert, and running the risk that the item will get ruined in the rain, when they see something of value left on the curb, they take it home and offer it on freecycle.

Every moderator has a favorite freecycle moment. Soden recalls one lucky day when she helped a woman who had gone bankrupt clean out her storage locker. The company handling the bankruptcy had taken what it could to auction. Soden went to help her clean out the rest. “We got all kinds of things out of there — paintings, statues, a lot of different artistic things that were in that locker. That was just a stroke of luck.”

Kutin has a couple of moments that make her smile. “I needed a two-drawer filing cabinet and I had a four-drawer filing cabinet,” she said. “So I offered the four-drawer and someone came and took it. I received a two-drawer cabinet from someone else. It was beautiful and that’s the essence of it. Get rid of what you don’t need, look for what you do need, and somehow it all works out.”

Kutin is also proud of her recycled kitchen. When she was redoing her kitchen, she offered her old cabinets, counter and sink on freecycle. “My contractor didn’t even have to get a dumpster,” she said. “Someone came and they even assisted him yanking stuff out and they carried it away and it was gone. And that was that. It was for somebody’s grandmother’s apartment in Princeton Borough. So it was right in the neighborhood.”

Later, she received storm windows from another freecycler. “You end up meeting your neighbors, you talk to your neighbors and it really is a lovely sense of community. It’s very symbiotic.”

Lee has two great armchairs he received from somebody who was upgrading. “They are in perfect state and so we are using them in our office. It’s been great.” Though he usually leaves items outside, he enjoys the times when he is able to meet people. “It’s been a wonderful way to meet people with similar interests and outlook.”

The people who use the site come from every age, nationality, family status and income level, with motivations ranging from saving the environment to building community to saving money. Some log in only to post offers when they are cleaning out their house. Others sign up to receive messages daily, both trolling for things they can use and offering what they no longer need. According to Lee, a steady 150-200 people per month are signing for the Princeton group.

Most of the users are individuals, but sometimes businesses do get involved. And some individuals will offer items (binders, T-shirts, equipment) that their employer is going to throw away.

“We have thrift shops that get overwhelmed with too many clothes or too many shoes or something,” said Soden. “They’ll be giving them away because they’ve had the items in the store for a long time.”

Last year the Quakerbridge Mall successfully gave away a number of unwanted items during a remodel through the Mercer County site. “They had large concrete planters and a whole bunch of tropical-style umbrellas. They got rid of all of them,” said Kutin.

Kutin says that on the Princeton site a number of offices on Route 1 have gotten rid of old computers, offices, desks and chairs. “People have just come and taken it all away,” she says.

Freecycle hopes that groups will be as local as possible. “Currently, the parent organization is trying to discourage county-wide groups and trying to make it even a little more local,” said Kutin. “Once you start driving around, schlepping around, that kind of defeats some of the purpose too. You want to keep things out of the landfill, but you don’t want to drive 40 miles to do so.”

But given that sometimes people work in one place and live in another, some will join and post to multiple groups, including Mercer County, Princeton, Bucks County, Middlesex County, and Monmouth County. Some groups require members to have a zip code within their area. Others accept potential members freely.

“I had some cacti that my neighbor didn’t want because she had children and they were getting pricked by them,” said Soden. “So this girl whose husband was in Iraq came all the way down from Ocean County and picked them up. Depending on the person and how bad they want a particular item, they will join different counties.”

All of the moderators say the time needed to manage the group is minimal. Kutin says all that is required is a few minutes of time each day and a tiny bit of computer skill. “That’s about it.”

Soden is on her computer four or five times a day. “I spend about five or ten minutes each time.” After a new member joins, she’ll moderate their messages (approve them before they are posted to the group) for about two weeks. “When I realize they know what to put on the subject line — the location, wanted or offered, then the item, after two weeks we take them off moderated status. It’s only the new members that we moderate and that’s why it doesn’t take us that long..”

Lee and Kutin also try to raise awareness of recycling through the Princeton group. They post links to other consignment/recycling programs in the area on their freecycle page and they send out occasional E-mails to make people aware of responsible ways to recycle electronic items.

There is a national forum where moderators can ask questions of the national chapter. A state moderator group provides a place where moderators can ask for thoughts and suggestions on starting or moderating local groups.

All three local moderators say that in the years they have been involved in the group, they have never heard of a problem with security.

If you do have security concerns, the moderators advise:

Set up a time with the recipient and put the article outside your front door (on the porch, driveway, outside the garage, etc.) with the recipient’s name on it. Don’t tell the recipient whether or not you will be home.

If it’s a heavy piece of furniture that requires the recipient to carry it, have someone else in the house with you.

Don’t post your phone number on the original post that is distributed to all members. You can give your phone number to someone who answers you individually.

If you don’t feel comfortable having people come to your house, meet them in a public place like the shopping center, outside the library, or at your workplace.

Members who don’t behave are first put on moderated status, then banned from the group. This includes members who have violent tendencies and members who don’t show up to pick up items when promised. “Two strikes and you’re out,” said Soden. “We record the no-shows. You promise to come and you don’t do it two times, we eject you from the group.”

Top tips from the moderators for new members.

1. By tradition, a new member should first post an offer before requesting a wanted item.

2. If requesting an item, just state what you want, without explanation. “We ask them to please just ask for something without saying my daughter is pregnant and my mother is an alcoholic and my father’s in jail,” says Soden.

3. If you feel strongly about where your item ends up, don’t freecycle it. Kutin said she has received complaints from people who gave something away, only to later see it at a local fleamarket or on eBay. “My response has always been, and I firmly believe this, if someone wanted to take time to take your old stuff, clean it up, photograph it, put it on eBay, god bless them.”

4. Read other posts. See what kinds of descriptions are helpful. Describe what you are offering as well as you are able to.

5. Be prepared that sometimes people don’t show up. Take it with a grain of salt. Report no-shows to the moderator and offer your item to the next person.

6. Figure out who should get the item. Some freecyclers will give it to the first person who responds. Others will state a preference, such as someone who can pick up quickly, or who will use the item themselves.

Others choose randomly. Kutin takes a look at what a person has posted before. If they have made many offers, she’ll give them preference. “If someone is constantly making wanted posts, liked wanted: motorboat, or wanted: new ipod, wanted: gameboy or brand new wii system, when they ask for something I’m offering, I’m not as inclined.” She suggests waiting a few hours after posting, allowing people a chance to get home from work and to see the post, then choosing a recipient.

To join freecycle, go to www.freecycle.org and search for the Mercer County or Princeton groups. If you’d like to form a freecycle group in your town, click on “Start a Freecycle Group.”

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