Have One on Me

Freecycle and the gift economy redistribute unwanted goods with heartening results (and occasional absurdity)

An easy bet: You’re going to get something you don’t want for the holidays, be it an unwieldy bread machine, your third metric socket set, or confidence-crushing, unflattering clothes (we’ve all been there). And if you do nothing, it’ll linger like the Ghost of Christmas Past or an eggnog hangover.

When it’s time to cut bait, Craigslist and eBay have proven sturdy means of selling off all manner of awkward goods and unwanted possessions. But it takes a particular temperament to wade into the thicket of selling or bartering that which we’d more or less like to simply see taken off our hands with a minimum of fuss. This is the gift economy’s reason for being: connecting folks with stuff to spare with those who want or need stuff. It might well turn the consumer paradigm on its ear, or at least spark exchange and connection.

A prime example is the web-based Freecycle, geographically sorted bulletin boards that link givers and recipients with no strings attached save the responsibility for pickup. “It isn’t necessarily in opposition to consumerism,” says Freecycle online moderator Dean Cummings. “But you might say that it helps keep consumerism sober.”

There’s a humility, if not temperance, in Freecycle’s giveaway listings. Hennepin County offerings have recently included furniture, electronics, books, and toys, along with oddball sundries including motor oil, railroad ties, and a toilet plunger (we’ll pass). “Wanted” listings have included such requests as a used Scrabble board and “old flour sacks,” along with appliances and winter insulation.

Cummings, a Minneapolis-based investment manager, notes, “I’ve always had a bit of the scavenger in me.” He adds that cars have changed hands on Freecycle, working and otherwise, as well as boats and a snowmobile. The site boasts 6.5 million members in 85 countries (it originated in Arizona; presumably fewer snowmobiles change hands there). Cummings estimates there are more than 15,000 participants in the Twin Cities.

Does it work? Yep. Last summer, space constrictions meant jettisoning a working treadmill; within hours of listing it on Freecycle, it was bound for a more appreciative home. And an afternoon trip to the Really Really Free Market (a regular gift-economy event) in Powderhorn Park meant a new owner for my unused gas grill, and the free pickup of a frankly awesome Michael Jordan Space Jam blanket for my son. (Score!)

And once these holidays are over, who knows? Food dehydrators and fondue pots will  change hands—hopefully with gratitude (eventually).