Freecycle.org, in the tradition of Craigslist or eBay, hosts an online marketplace, only there are no prices for any of the items, and the things that are up for grabs might have otherwise been thrown in the trash by those who are trying to off-load them.
"You know, people throw away stuff that is so good," said Citrus Heights resident Janet Menschel, a Freecycle.org user since 2005. She motioned toward her kitchen table, saying, "I got the lap table, the placemats, the chairs" from Freecycle. Menschel did not pay a penny for the items because they were listed by people at Freecycle.org who wanted only to get rid of them.
There is no cost and no shipping. Just a meeting place, and an exchange.
"I've gotten a lot of things," said Menschel, who pointed out items in every room of her house that came from Freecycle. "But ... I also have a long long list of things that I've donated."
That is the other aspect of Freecycle required to sustain the system. Users can log onto the site and see people in their immediate area who are trying to get rid of unwanted clothing, furniture, and other items. But just as important as allowing people to list items they'd like to get, the organization also depends on people offering things they want to get rid of.
Freecycle.org was founded by Deron Beal of Tucson, Ariz. nearly eight years ago. In 2006, the organization attained non-profit status. Part of the Freecycle mission, as stated on the website, is to help keep junk out of landfills by finding people who have a need for it.
Freecycle's concept of trading things for free has spread to more than 85 countries. The group claims the benefit is that would-be trash is diverted from dumps into living rooms across the globe at a rate of 500 tons a day.
Menschel believes it is still a relatively well-kept secret.
"Freecycle, even though it is nationwide, isn't really known," she said. "I found out about it through a newspaper article."
For those who would normally donate items to organizations like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, there is a drawback. Those organizations give a receipt for tax write-off purposes whenever receiving clothing or other items. With Freecycle.org, you don't get a tax deduction receipt from the person you give your item to. However, if you make a monetary donations to Freecycle, that is tax deductible.
"The demand is going to be there, always," said Jourdan Perla, a computer and technology expert at UC Davis. "People are always going to want free stuff. But how much more stuff will be entering the Freecycle economy ... when times are tight? The supply side of Freecycle, people giving things for free, might not meet the demand for more free items."
Menschel agreed, and said she has noticed that from time to time.
"Now (Freecycle has) turned into a freebie list, and that's a problem," she said.
"We do have those members that just ask for things without offering anything," said Rich Southerland, a Sacramento-area moderator for Freecycle.org. He suggested media publicity can often bring extra visitors to the Freecycle community, though not always in a good way.
"It usually happens (that we get those visitors looking only for free stuff, not to offer anything) after a media report. We get a flood of new members that hear they can get free stuff. They fill the message board up with want (ads)," Southerland said.
Southerland said most of those new members usually find limited success, and quickly go inactive with their usage.
Written by Will Frampton, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Will on Twitter.