Freecycle: Trash to Treasure

You never know what you might notice just simply walking around town each day—a beautiful garden, a funny sign, a unique performance—or a box stuffed to the brim on the sidewalk with the words “free” written in big letters. Every week in the city, you are bound to find something that is being tossed out from someone’s house in the hope that others may be able to use it. Appliances, furniture, toys, and other household items become free gifts to the community—to be gobbled up by the first person who sets their eyes on the prize. Yet, despite these good intentions, much of the waste that we produce is not given a second chance. With the ease of manufacturing cheap, disposable goods to fit market demand, and the lack of recyclable engineering practices in consumer products, most of what we buy has one destination when we are done using it: the nearest landfill. When something breaks, it is often more costly to repair or salvage the item, rather than purchase something new. In this age of “throw-away culture”, the freecycling mindset is at least one way we can manage waste and rethink our consumer consumption in a sustainable manner.

Waste and the Global Economy

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the total generation of municipal solid waste in 2018 was 292.4 million tons, with at least 146.1 million tons going directly into landfills. That’s nearly half of all trash forever rotting away each year in dumps, literally!—approximately 35% of the waste dumped into landfills comes from food and paper products. Restaurants make up a portion of this as they struggle to estimate their purchases to meet fluctuating customer demands on any given day. The driving need to use fresh ingredients for a consistent daily menu leaves no room for leftover products that one can enjoy after cooking a nice meal at home. At grocery stores, at least 50% of fresh produce is thrown out while still being edible, and many stores overstock their shelves in the belief that full displays are more appealing to shoppers. Failing businesses underperform the worst in sustainable practices, and with no overarching government oversight, even those who do make considerable profits are allowed to waste so much.

While reform on the business end can certainly deter wasteful practices in the industry, changing the mindset of the consumer is a challenge to be tackled as well. With the advent of online shopping becoming more popular and easier these days, packaging is being generated nonstop along the global supply chain. In 2020, Amazon delivered 4.2 billion packages in the United States alone—that’s over 11 million packages a day—and although Amazon claims to be practicing sustainability with lighter packaging, most of what they are sending is non-recyclable plastic and bubble wrap. Other retailers are also drifting away from paper products and shipping items in more plastic. Moreover, with sites like Grubhub and Uber Eats, food delivery is now at the touch of an app on the phone: the paper bag, plastic food boxes, and utensils all becoming new sources of waste. We’ve become so accustomed to getting whatever we want at the touch of a screen, we have yet to think about the consequences of our “convenient” actions.

One method of reducing waste has been implemented by many urban zones, and that is to create more robust waste management and recycling programs; however productive they are, these programs often overlook a huge factor of metropolitan waste production—moving. Like other major cities, Boston is a hub of activity from university students to business professionals: many of them coming in from all over the world. Most graduating students leave several things behind as they leave campus, from school materials to furniture, choosing to throw out most of their college belongings rather than take them home with them. Each year in Massachusetts, 600,000 mattresses and box springs are discarded annually. These and other textile consumer items are never picked up from the curb due to cleanliness concerns, but end up lining the streets of Boston like a beacon to signal the drifting wave of people. Tufts University reported that on average, in the months of May and June, each student leaves behind at least 230 tons of waste. If we look just at 2021 alone, approximately 1,200 students graduated from Tufts. That means each year we can estimate one small private college generating 230,000 tons of waste: imagine the scale for a major state school!

In an area known for so many colleges, Boston has tried to make efforts to raise awareness and engage the public in reducing waste from moving. On September 1st, the event known as “Allston Christmas” marks a significant time in the city when both college students and professionals are moving in and out. Most apartment leases begin and end on this date, so you’ll find loads of stuff lying out on the street—Allston being one of the most popular areas for college kids. However, this one event is still not enough to save items from ending up in the trash. All throughout the year, you’ll see people who are just willing to throw out their belongings, rather than take the time to donate to the nearest recycling agency or charity shop. Even those who put boxes on the curb with the word free on them are sending these items to an early grave: either rain damages them or there is not enough demand from the community before garbage trucks come and pick everything up.

What is Freecycling?

The Freecycle Network first began in Tucson, Arizona as a collaboration with the RISE corporation to find local nonprofits in need of recyclable items; however, the failure of this project would spawn a new initiative in 2005 with Waste Management Inc, the company who would provide funding to launch a nationwide network and the website we know today. While the term freecycling has been in use for some time, this online avenue for giving away and reusing unwanted consumer items helped to promote this kind of activity in popular culture. Even sites like Craigslist have a free section on their classifieds page that promotes freecycling through scheduled pickups and “curb alert” advertisements. By creating an interface where local communities can connect with each other, websites and listings can offer a more efficient way of promoting pickups than just leaving “free” boxes on the curb. It also encourages neighborhoods to work together to reduce unnecessary spending and waste, help low income families, and to build strong relationships toward a more sustainable future.

In 2012, I got my first assignment for the military here in Boston. I just graduated college about 6 months prior, and coming out of school I didn’t have much money to pay both the extremely high rental prices for the area and cover the basic essentials for an apartment. I was very lucky to move into a place where the previous tenants left most of their furniture behind. For the first 3 months I slept on the futon in the spare bedroom and my landlord brought over a spare leather sofa and loveseat for the living room. Other furniture I collected for free through Craiglist, or would sometimes spot something on the street while driving around town. A colleague gave me an old record player and with a collection of old albums I found laying on the sidewalk, I really felt like I was living in style when I brought guests over.

Later in 2016, a friend heard that I was planning to make a long backpacking trip through Europe, and gave me a large backpack that she acquired through the Freecycling website. A new pack of that size would’ve cost me upwards of 300 dollars or more: not only did I save a significant amount of money, I was able to cut down on a purchase of a brand new item that uses energy resources and materials to make. While it has definitely seen some wear, I still use this pack today when I’m out camping or going on a long trip: still as reliable as the day it was donated to me.

Dumpster Rescue in Europe

Before my journey through Europe, I did a lot of research on ways that I could live cheaply and on a budget while getting to do the things that I wanted most. I was also interested in finding opportunities that I could be involved with the local people and have some sort of authentic experience while traveling. After so long of just visiting tourist destinations, you get quite exhausted and still feel like an outsider to the places you have visited. You feel an urge to connect and give back to the community: to have some external outlet to do something more than receive input from your surroundings.

The first stretch of my trip I was pretty much on the go every day; I had no car in Iceland and the bus around the Ring Road was not always the cheapest or frequently scheduled mode of travel. I had heard that the people of Iceland were very friendly to hitchhikers and would often pick you up if you were a tourist. While I’ve certainly tried my luck in much worse places, Iceland proved to be above average in the ability to get a ride quickly. On top of that, there were several towns with no major grocery stores or restaurants, so if you didn’t have a car, you were basically scrounging around for anything to eat. Add the outdoor exercise from hiking and walking from place to place, exhaustion sets in rather quickly. After 5 weeks, I was ready to settle down for a bit, and I took a ferry from Seyðisfjörður over to a country that many people have never heard of: The Faroe Islands. I spent 3 months here living in Tórshavn, and I just tried to act like a local. I wandered the streets poking around different shops and restaurants, got involved with the local music scene, joined a hiking group, and traveled around the islands to many of the various festivals throughout the summer. After only a month, I was seeing many of the same faces walking around town: even the people I met from the hostel would comment, “Do you know everyone around here?” This whole backpacking thing was completely new to me, and I felt like maybe this was the type of experience I wanted to continue having. Traveling wasn’t about just seeing a bunch of things; it was about having a connection and experience with the people and places around you.

My first encounter with food rescue was here in the Faroes, as I took a daring leap to try things out on my own. Dumpster diving is very faux pas in the United States, so there is only a small niche of people that you could talk to for information and practice. The only resources I could turn to were articles and websites online which I hoped to be accurate: Trashwiki, Falling Fruit, and any sites associated with the Freegan movement are sparse but can at least help you get started. One of the biggest concerns among those who are new to dumpster diving is safety. Looking at a bunch of garbage bags shoved in a dumpster, our minds don’t really jump to the conclusion of tasty, edible food. We think of flies, unsafe objects, and unbearable smells which make us not want to step within ten feet of this place. However, depending on store practices and the frequency of garbage pickup, many items that are thrown out are perfectly fine. Often fruits and vegetables that come in large bags are tossed because there is only one bad item in the whole set. Rather than remove the rotten produce and put the fresh items out on display, stores waste entire bags of food. Bakeries throw out fresh loaves of bread that are not sold within that day, so they can bake new ones the next. Pastries and desserts often last only a few days before they are dumped into the trash. Many packaged foods have to be thrown out right on the expiration date, and yet they are still good for consumption many months afterwards. While all of this may convince you to try this yourself, just be sure that before pursuing any sort of food rescue activities, that you do as much research as possible: look at food expiration data, ensure the dumpster is used for food products only, and check the store’s disposal processes to eliminate the possibility of hazardous substances which could contaminate the food.

My friend lived downtown in Tórshavn and it was a perfect location for our nighttime operation at the nearest supermarket just steps away on the hill. We waited until a few minutes after they closed, but aghast, the lights in the store were still on. We paced around the block for another 10 minutes before finally, the woman working at the store exited the front door and drove off. We were in the clear! We felt like we were on some kind of heist: we checked for cameras and pulled our hoods over our heads as we approached the small dumpster. Lifting the lid, we opened up our first bag; it was sushi still in the container. Sushi was extremely expensive in Scandinavia but super risky to attempt outside of refrigeration: who knows how long this raw food has been sitting in the trash. Our next bag contained baked goods and pastries. Now this is the treasure we were looking for. My friend took a large baguette of bread while I grabbed a couple boxes of danishes. This was enough for tonight: time to experiment with our bounty and hope for the best. After several days we felt fine, and although it wasn’t something that we did very frequently, it was a nice treat and fun experience for the occasion.

When I arrived in Denmark, my plan was to do a work exchange program with a family who owned their own property and farm out in the countryside. With these kinds of programs, you basically stay with someone and help them with things like watching children, cleaning and hosting a bed and breakfast, or working on a farm. Instead of getting paid, you are given room and board, but the idea is not to just work you to death, but allow you some time to explore the area and interact with local people. Petersholm is a small family farm that practices sustainable initiatives in permaculture, waste reduction, and organic living. When I got there in September 2016, much of the work involved was preparing for the winter season. Fruit trees produced ready fruit on a daily basis and were gathered to be stored fresh in the cold cellar in the barn or to make vinegars, jams, and baked goods. An entire field of buckwheat was harvested to be processed into flour for breads. Other activities included digging out new bio-swales to expand the vegetable garden and using grass clippings and hay from the yard to decompose and protect the soil over the winter. Just months before, Petersholm had also built a low-impact “Hobbit House” using recycled materials and we were currently working on the construction of the BioPod, which would house hydroponics for vegetables and an integrated aquaculture system for fresh fish. The BioPod would use renewable energy, electronic sensors, and sustainable design to limit the amount of energy input needed to run this indoor farm.

With all of these cool projects, what was most interesting and memorable to many volunteers at Petersholm were the efforts to rescue food from local dumpsters and reclaim these normally wasted products. Every couple nights or so, a team would volunteer to go out for a grocery haul, and we would fill up the back of the car with as many items that could possibly fit in our baskets. It was astounding to see how much perfectly good produce was thrown away into the trash on a weekly basis, all because it wasn’t fresh enough to sell to customers at full price. A carrot might have a bad spot on the end or a piece of fruit might be too bruised to sell, but when brought back to the farm, we cut out all the bad parts and used this produce in the recipes for each day and fermentation/probiotic products. We even utilized the tops of bad produce to grow new roots that could be planted in the garden. Although it can be a time consuming activity, food rescue is one way we can take action to encourage more sustainable living practices within the general public, and eventually work to influence policy on a government and corporate scale.

A Cozy Evening

I’ve moved around a lot in Boston: in the last 10 years, I’ve lived in at least 7 different apartments. Each time you get ready to move, you see all the stuff you have as a burden—just one more thing to carry up flights of stairs to the next place. It’s so easy in today’s world to acquire so many things, but difficult to stay in one spot. Companies are working on projects all over the globe. Technology and communication has become even more advanced. We as humans are like the packages we send. We are expected to be mobile, but it often comes at a price to a sustainable life. With everything I’ve learned and experienced, I am now always thinking about what is actually necessary to support myself. I don’t usually have the latest and greatest gadgets. I often wait to buy things so I can either acquire them used at a thrift store or through some sort of freecycling option. When something that would make my life more convenient just appears, it is a wonderful feeling. It makes you wonder at times if you are some kind of magician.

At my last apartment, we had an electric kettle for boiling water. It’s not the most essential thing, but it made making tea so much easier, and it actually helped me get into a soothing routine each day. When I moved into my new place, I had it on my mind how nice it would be to have a kettle again. It may have taken some time but within some months I was walking down the road and I saw a box in front of me. I’m like a scavenger when it comes to these things: I can’t help but always check to see if there is something I might be able to recover. I saw a glimmer in the distance and as I approached, there it was: a metal electric kettle that was perfectly useable. Yes it had some wear and rust around the edges, but the inside was clean and it was nothing that affected its performance. I was so excited to bring it home and plug it in to see if it worked. My backpack was nearly full with stuff, so carrying this thing all the way home just to find out it didn’t work would have been a major disappointment. I took it to the sink to wash it up and dry it—who knows how long it had gone unused—and brought it upstairs. I grabbed my teabag and my cup and waited. The light came on and within minutes started to boil—success! I absolutely loved the aesthetics of the kettle: its vintage design felt like I was transported to the Victorian era with fancy galas and tea parties. I was but a bourgeois prince with my thrifted kettle, relaxing into the evening and dreaming of a world yonder where the simple pleasures in life can maybe, just maybe, satisfy a thirst beyond the mundane.