by Roxanne Tellier
The hardest part of starting something – is starting something.
In 2003, Deron Beal was 39 years old, and working in Tucson, Arizona for a non-profit group that combined recycling with job training. Beal couldn’t stand to see good, usable items in his neighbourhood being thrown away on garbage day, and he began rescuing things that would have otherwise only added to the mass in the ever-growing city dumps and landfills.
But soon he’d accumulated a warehouse of furniture, computer parts, and other items that, while not recyclable, were still useable, and were often items in demand by other non-profits. He’d drive around to drop off donations, but the pile was getting higher, and the work became too much for one person.
That’s when Beal got the idea of setting up a group on the Yahoo network, dedicated to the sharing of items that might otherwise be scrapped. He began by emailing a few of the Tucson non-profits and about 30 of his friends, and overnight, The Freecycle Network was launched. Memberships soared from 60 to 800 members within days.
The name came from the idea of ‘free recycling’ – a ‘free cycle’ of giving, with no strings attached.
“The beauty of Freecycle is it empowers each of us to make a concrete difference in our community, both in the environment, and by helping people.” Deron Beal.
Beal soon set up a national website, bringing in city after city, and it wasn’t very long before the organization stretched world-wide, spreading to over 110 countries, with thousands of local groups within over 5,100 local chapters, and millions of members, to ultimately become a huge philanthropic system, almost entirely staffed by like-minded volunteers.
Membership is completely free. The only rule is that everything posted on the website must be completely free, legal, and appropriate for everyone, regardless of their age.
Joining the global system couldn’t be easier; simply visit www.freecycle.org, find your local group, and click ‘join.’ One of the worldwide volunteers will then send you instructions on how to use the network.
On any given day, about 32,000 items are offered or requested, and there is no telling exactly what you might find on the list. Textbooks, furniture, plants, cat trees – in the years that I’ve been a member, I’ve seen everything from a broken kettle to a limousine and a house boat being offered.
I’ve been an avid freecycler since March of 2006. One of the first items I received was a bar fridge, and I kept that until just a few years ago, when I passed it on to a friend whose fridge had broken.
Wandering thru my Freecycle email folder is like a trip down memory lane, as I note all the items, big and small, I’ve received or donated in the last 15 years.
When we lived in Scarborough, I usually ttc’ed to wherever I needed to be to pick up the goodies. I’ll never forget struggling home from Woodbine and Queen with an enormous, queen sized magnet mattress pad. Took me hours, by bus, subway, and GO train. Thankfully it was in November; I’d never have survived the trip in the summer.
I once ttc’ed all the way to Jane and Steeles to pick up some used medical supplies that we needed as props for a film we worked on. In 2016, Shawn and I somehow wrestled a treadmill into our van, and we’ve been wrestling with it ever since. It’s living in the shed these days.
In 2018 I needed a cane after sustaining a back injury. I’d hardly typed in the request before a senior care group was organizing to bring one to my home that very evening, and asking if there were any other items I might need, or help they could give.
I’ve been gifted so many items, and I’ve donated just as many through the years. Early on, I was happy to clear out excess plants and gardening utensils, outgrown clothing, unused cosmetics and hair products, and out of date computer parts. After breaking my ankle twice, I decided it was time to dispose of my stage stilettos – it just broke my heart to see them go. Particularly when one of the people who’d requested his pick of the fancy shoes and boots arrived in a Mercedes Benz, wearing a $600 business suit, and announced he wanted something pretty for his wife. I just hoped my used footwear wasn’t earmarked for her Mother’s Day present.
More recently, I saw how hard the city has been hit by the pandemic. I offered up a couple of bags of ‘gently’ expired food items after purging my pantry, and was flooded with requests for the food. I finally wound up splitting the goodies (and adding a bunch more, freshly purchased treats) between two families who were happy to have the foodstuff.
I’ve always had an intimate awareness of economic inequality. I came from a family that, by today’s standards, would be considered extremely poor. We were often ‘food insecure,’ but my mother made sure we were never short of love.
I grew up hypervigilant, ever aware of how close to the bone we were, financially. It made me determinedly, even doggedly, self-sufficient. I knew, from a very young age, that some people had a lot of good things, while others had less, and that, for the unfortunate few, having food and shelter at the end of the day could revolve around having the luck of finding a chair at the table when the music stopped.
Our city, like so many others, has been hit hard by the pandemic, which has only highlighted the extreme economic inequity we’re soaking in. Our ‘essential workers’ are lucky if they make minimum wage, yet many have either had their hours drastically cut, or lost their jobs completely. The skyrocketing real estate values have exacerbated the already out of control shortage of affordable housing. And while those businesses that were allowed to stay open have raked in billions, by January 2021, more than 200,000 small businesses in Canada had closed their doors forever, and will never reopen.
In the long-term, even band aid solutions to these issues will have to come from governments, but unfortunately, we’re not exactly blessed with capital L Leaders or Leadership at the moment.
And that means that all we can do to help those who need our help is to be aware of the resources, big and small, that concerned people have provided that we can access.
There’s Freecycle, of course, and also a bunch of similar groups that have sprung up on the internet, including Toronto-ReUseIt (GoogleGroups.com,) FreeTOReuse (yahoo,) TrashNothing.com, and many more that you can find on Google or Facebook.
Toronto has always been a city with a big heart. There are many charitable groups that feed and clothe our homeless and vulnerable, and there are some great social media groups, including Caremongering-TO, that sidestep the usual bureaucracy to get funds and food directly into the hands of the needy.
There’s also something called the Really Really Free Market that has been on hold during COVID, but is apparently going to be revived soon. They gather on the first Saturday of every month at Campbell Park (Dupont/Lansdowne) and usually attract a good crowd. As they say on their Facebook page:
“Basically, it’s a community-space for sharing – where people bring what they have to give, take what they need, and leave the rest. It’s kind of like a potluck, but for goods and services!
How it works:
You can drop stuff off, pick something up, or stick around! This could include both items and services, such as:
-clothes, books, music, furniture, household and kitchen wares, pet supplies
-homemade goods, such as crafts, art, artisan goods, and baked goods (don’t forget to list the ingredients!)
-services, such as haircuts, yoga classes, music/dance lessons, massage, or gardening help.
All unclaimed items will be donated at the end of the day.”Really Really Free Market, Toronto
Every little bit that we do to help others counts. I found out recently that there are a few people who are still making face (COVID) masks, and leaving them outside to be taken by anyone who needs or wants a face covering.
I just love the Little Free Libraries that have sprung up in cities and towns across North America in the last few years. There’s about a dozen within crawling distance of me, and they get my full support. (LittleFreeLibrary.org)
Many have diversified as needed, now carrying CDs, DVDs, and the odd video or audio tape for sharing. A few also allow little luxuries like perfume and hand creams to be shared.
Some of those Little Libraries have morphed into Little Free Pantries during the pandemic. There’s at least two near me, one just above Kingston Road, on Hunt Club, and another just north of Danforth Avenue, at Woodbine. There people can share non-perishables, and get information on how to get help with their food and shelter needs. Every little bit helps.
There are eight places to leave books and other items in my immediate area, including a small box for food donations at a local church. Yesterday I headed out for my afternoon walkabout with a can of Spam, a can of corned beef, three tins of Mandarin oranges, 6 DVDs, an expensive shampoo and conditioner set I hadn’t liked, a small container of Estee Lauder’s “Pleasure’ body lotion, a couple of still sealed lipsticks, some hair clips, and of course, a half dozen books, and made the rounds of these drop off points. While on the way, I twice spotted boxes of books on the curb, and added those to my stash for distribution. Sharing these items is a great way to do a little something for others, without feeling any kind of deprivation of one’s own.
Just as with the spirit of Freecycling, “each of us can make a concrete difference in our community, both in the environment, and by helping people.”
All we have to do is the hardest part … and start.