Real People Stories

Free for All

UPDATED 05/10/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/10/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

In November 2002 Deron Beal hired on as a manager for RISE, a nonprofit that provides a recycling service for local businesses in Tucson. It didn't take long to realize he had a problem. "The businesses started giving us all this stuff that's not recyclable but that they don't want to throw away," he says. "Computers, desks. I didn't know what to do with it, but I couldn't bear to say no."

Beal tried giving the items to charity but after hours of calls scarcely made a dent. Then, last May, an epiphany: Why not set up a Web group where people can unload trash that might be someone else's treasure? A kind of cyber curbside. "I thought, 'If I give this a nifty name,' " says Beal, 36, " 'who knows?' "

One year later Beal's site (www.freecycle.org) has become an Internet phenomenon with 53,000 members in 360 cities—including London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo and Melbourne. And just how does one freecycle? For starters, the network is broken down into local groups, each with its own volunteer moderator (collectively known as the "mod squad"). If there's an object, or even a service, you want to give or receive, you post an e-mail, leave a contact and, if someone bites, arrange for a pickup. The rules are simple: no politics or spam, and everything must be free. Some popular goods offered up: exercise equipment, moving boxes and anything related to gardening.

But the site attracts some decidedly uncommon offers and requests. There was the offer of a " '63-'64 schoolbus motorhome...NO Brakes." And a plea for wings, feathers and a stuffed armadillo for "extreme art purposes." One woman offered a mixed bottle of partially used hair dye: "It needs to be used really soon, so if anyone has an urge to go darker, tonight is the night." An Austin, Texas, freecycler who asked to be identified only by his user name "dancestoblue" offered fishing tackle—but only to someone who once had tackle stolen. "As a kid 34 years ago, give or take, I stole a tackle box," he explains. "There's no way I can find the person and make it right, so I'm trying to do the next best thing."

In many cases local freecycling groups have developed into Web-based communities where members help each other out. Oregonians Livia Vande and Larry Thompson scored not only a free photo album for their April 24 wedding, but free photography from a fellow freecycler. But they also gave back. "We helped a refugee family at Christmastime," says Vande. "We inherited a lot of stuff from Larry's grandmother and tried to give them as much as we could to start a little household."

Beal is thrilled by the response. "It's inspiring," he says, "to see someone driving off with something of yours that they really need." Born in Lancaster, Ohio, he arrived at a career in recycling via a circuitous route. After earning a degree in foreign service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and later an M.B.A., he worked as a finance manager for Procter & Gamble and studied literature in Germany. He considered teaching, then switched to environmentalism and settled in Tucson in 1999. An admitted "computer illiterate," he started his free-cycling venture with an e-mail to just 30 or 40 friends. When he set up the site in Tucson, the group snowballed, and he got some tech help.

At the bungalow home he shares with his wife of nine months, pastry chef Jennifer Columbus, 37, Beal tries to live the freecycling life—with mixed results. Sure, Columbus would like him to clear out the shed. "But there's a difference between a weird pack rat and Deron," she says. "He has everything splayed out, but it's not, like, gross." Though he makes no income from freecycling, Beal has reaped rewards. "We got this great kitchen table," Columbus says, "and a neat old 1930s couch." It has given him some big ideas too, such as rallying his tens of thousands of members for good causes. "It has to grow up by itself," he says. "I'm just helping it along."

Richard Jerome. Strawberry Saroyan in Los Angeles

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