By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
The old furniture that’s been displaced by the new. The school clothes the children outgrew before the fabric even looked worn. The extra coffee maker.
Every household has it — miscellaneous “stuff” that’s no longer needed and takes up precious space. Most of it ends up in the garage, then the yard and finally in the dumpster, en route to the landfill.
Gwen Foster has a better idea.
“Use Freecycle,” said the Liberal resident and local moderator of the program that aims to change the world “one gift at a time.”
The Freecycle Network, a nonprofit organization, was founded in May 2003 “to promote waste reduction in Tucson’s downtown and help save desert landscape from being taken over by landfills,” the organization’s Web site states. Nearly a decade later, Freecycle chapters have taken root in more than 3,500 communities sprinkled across 70 countries —and that includes one in Liberal. Though Liberal’s Freecycle membership currently stands at just more than 100 people, they are part of more than 8 million members around the world.
Freecycle works a little bit like a swap meet, a little bit like the tail end of a garage sale, and a little bit like scavenger hunting.
“Everything is free, and it’s freely given,” Foster said. “A lot of people get on because they just want things. In actuality, Freecycle is not meant to be a place to get something for free. It goes both ways.”
The ultimate aim, Foster said, “is to take care of what we have, to share, and to keep big things that are still good out of the landfill.”
Foster’s convictions are rooted in family tradition. As a little girl growing up in north central Kansas, her daily life included lots of time with her grandparents, thrifty, hard-working people.
“My grandpa was a blacksmith, and he always kept scrap iron around the place. My grandmother was very much a recycling person, though we didn’t call it recycling back then,” she said. “I remember, at Christmas time, she’d tell me to get under the staircase and get out the boxes. I’d open the door underneath the stairs, and there would be shoeboxes, and gift boxes, and things she’d saved from the Christmas before.”
These days, Foster finds herself “saving those kind of things to use over again,” she said, as she endeavors to pass the lesson on to her own grandchildren.
“I’m just trying to teach my grandchildren that if you don’t take care of the environment, there will be problems when they get to be adults,” she said. Since Foster and her husband, Dan, a school teacher, are helping raise two of the grandchildren, the lessons are interwoven with everyday life.
“My oldest granddaughter who’s just 8, she loves to recycle,” Foster said. “She loves to give things to people. When she’s done with her toys, she’ll pack ‘em up and send them to other people, and send them with missionary friends from church.”
Foster’s granddaughter could be a poster child for Freecycle, which posts stories on its Internet site to illustrate the benefits of sharing instead of trashing unwanted goods.
“My daughters’ stolen bicycles were replaced in time for Christmas,” testified a mom of five, Austin, Texas. In San Jose, Calif., “a truckload of diapers, clothes and supplies was collected through Freecycle for an orphanage in Haiti. FedEx donated the shipping,” the organization’s Web site states.
Foster learned about Freecycle through an Internet friend back east, she said, who raved about the benefits to the environment and to individuals. When Foster looked up Kansas chapters, she found active branches in Garden City and in Dodge City, but nothing in Liberal.
“I joined both, but that’s just too far away for me,” she said. “I applied to be a moderator because I thought it was a worthy cause. I’ve really enjoyed the work.”
Foster checks all the online applications for the Liberal group to verify the people who’ve signed up are real, and that they understand the Freecycle concept.
“It’s all nonprofit, and nobody is supposed to post an item they want to give away, or want to find, and then turn around and ask for money,” said Foster, who’s recently given away a waterbed frame and “a lot of kids’ clothes.” Once a giveaway item is posted on the local Internet listing, the giver receives emails from those who are interested in taking the item. The choice of who receives the item and how the exchange takes place is up to the giver.
“Some people prefer to leave an item on the front porch or in the driveway so the person taking it can just come get it, and you still have the privacy and safety of your own home,” Foster said. “Sometimes you know the people. It just depends on the circumstances.”
Policies for the Liberal group have changed with the local landscape. For instance, the pet giveaway rules specify a Freecycle member may post about giving a pet to a good home only once a month. Overall, though, Foster hopes to see more local action.
“I’ve tried in the past to have a spring cleaning time and other promotions, and we might do that again,” Foster said. “I’d like to see our chapter become more active because that benefits everyone. If I have something in my house that I haven’t used for a year or so, I’m probably not going to. I might as well give it to someone who will.”
Besides eliminating clutter, Foster said the Freecycle mentality frees up space and time, and helps the local landscape in more ways than one.
“I would just encourage people to really think about what they are sending out in the garbage and taking out to the dump. If we take care of the place we live, it will be nice for the people who come after us.” Freecycle, Foster pointed out, doesn’t require much more effort than lugging a bulky item out to the alley. But it could help someone out, and help Seward County’s land and air as well.
“If nobody wants it, then you can say, ‘at least I tried,’” she said.
To join Freecycle in Liberal, go to http://www.freecycle.org/ on the Internet, then type in “Liberal, KS” to find the local branch information.