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Last Updated: Monday, 20 June 2005, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Free enterprise
Landfill site
Blocking the overflow
The temptation to buy buy buy is hard to resist, be it a new outfit, gadget or item of furniture. Now guilty shoppers keen to offload a no-longer-needed purchase have a radical new option... simply giving it away.

As second-hand technology goes, who'd have thought that my sluggish, ageing, Korean-made computer would generate much interest when I put it up for offer online. I was wrong.

A bidding war quickly begins for the five-year-old Daewoo machine which is "past its best" and a printer which probably works.

Surprising that there are any takers at all? It would be on a conventional auction site, such as eBay. But I'm advertising on its philanthropic cousin,

Elsewhere on the site, someone is trying to shift a manual for a 1980s Ford Escort, and another has two bin bags full of "loud" men's clothes, suitable for "dressing up, pimpin', hip hop, etc".

As the name suggests, everything advertised on Freecycle must be free - whether it's an old sofa, unwanted CDs, or even a few hours' help in the garden. Anyone interested simply replies by e-mail: deal done.

It is just one of a number of websites which could play a valuable part in reducing the amount of rubbish sent to landfill sites by encouraging one of the most efficient forms of recycling - simply giving things to people who want them.

Old computer
Not the latest kit, but hey, it's free
The site is the creation of Deron Beal, an environmentalist from Arizona, in the US, who started it in mid-2003 as an automated e-mail list. Today, it resembles a cross between an internet auction house and a global chain of charity shops.

Mr Beal says his chief aim is to cut waste and help the environment.

"I live in the Sonora desert, which is one of the most beautiful deserts in the world. And smack-dab in the middle of this desert, you've got this hideous landfill, half of which is full of perfectly good reusable stuff," Mr Beal recently told reporters.

Today, the Freecycle network is run through Yahoo! Groups and has 1.2 million members in 2,700 clusters worldwide. These clusters are based on location - there are 60 in the UK - which means goods can be picked up rather than posted, handy for bulky items such as sofas.

Give and take

On the London site, interest in my decrepit computer is led by Tung, who wants to get his 67-year-old mum on the net. Then there's Kate and Margaret, who both want the PC for their sons' school work; someone asking on behalf of a friend forced to move by an abusive partner; and John, who wants it for his daughter, a nurse on a low wage.

People want to feel a bit better about consuming and so they're happy to give things away
Georgina Bloomfield, Friends of the Earth
Money isn't involved, but an auction of sorts is taking place to see whose situation most warrants a free PC. My inclination is to give it to someone in need, but I am forced to make a difficult choice between several "bidders".

While doubters suggest unscrupulous individuals could spin heart-tugging yarns in order to secure freebies, or even to sell them on, my requests seem genuine. I eventually opt for Clive Brown, a project worker who wants it for a client with learning disabilities.

Spend spend spend

Freecycle embodies some of that charitable internet spirit of old, asking that before members accept a freebie, they put something up for offer. And it's by no means all junk. There are nearly-new toys, furniture, electrical goods, even bikes and cars.

That such high-quality goods are on offer does not surprise Friends of the Earth campaigner Georgina Bloomfield. She says it reflects the fact people are buying more than ever, but don't want to simply throw things away when they can afford to replace them.

"People want to feel a bit better about consuming, and so they're happy to give things away," she says. "They also imagine the problem of selling it is not really worth their while."

Clive Brown, who won my auction, agrees: "I was given a bed and did not need the brand new mattress, so I put it on the site and it was gone in minutes. I was delighted someone wanted it."

Waste mountain

While Freecycle has grown rapidly around the world in countries as diverse as Mexico, Nepal, France and Romania, it seems to be on the cusp of breaking through into the mainstream.

Tomoko Takahashi artwork
One person's rubbish...
Controversially, in some minds at least, it recently signed up a corporate sponsor. Mr Beal says he needs the funds to help spread the Freecycle ethos even further.

At the same time there are few rival sites. Give or Take, a project based in East London, has recently added an internet presence, and has a lively "freebies" section.

Campaigners would prefer that the site was not required at all. "Our ultimate aim is to reduce what's going into landfill sites. But for those people who can't afford to buy new things, there's a real benefit," says Lisa Donovan of Give or Take.

Until people change their ways, green groups, guilty consumers and those with an eye for the ultimate bargain seem more than happy to make the most of the idea.

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