Freecycle - turning trash into treasures

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An online movement finds a home for unwanted items, giving them a new purpose in life.

Artist Carrie Bolton with her bread tag artwork. Photo / Babiche Martens
Artist Carrie Bolton with her bread tag artwork. Photo / Babiche Martens

There have been some curious packages arriving in Carrie Bolton's Te Atatu mailbox over the past few months, bulky ones that rattle when shaken. But Bolton is unconcerned. This part-time artist put a call out on the Freecycle website for the coloured plastic tags that seal bread packets. She wanted them to complete a sculpture she's been working on - and her fellow members responded enthusiastically.

The Freecycle movement was born in 2003 in Tucson, Arizona and has since gone global. It's a private, non-profit organisation with the mantra of "changing the world one gift at a time". At its core are principles of sustainability, played out in daily transactions where "one man's junk is another's treasure". A blurb on the American homepage states: "As a result, we are currently keeping over 500 tonnes a day out of landfills." Basically, Freecycle members offer unwanted items through the website, while others post messages for things they need. The key is: everything is free - no money changes hands.

The system relies on the goodness in human nature and here in New Zealand, the online community is growing in leaps and bounds. There are now 40 groups across the country and nearly 18,000 members. In Auckland alone, there are five Freecycle sectors, covering different parts of the city.

One glance at the website and you can tell this is something different. There is no advertising and certainly no "flash" factor.

Scan the notices and you'll pick up someone wanting an F7 key for a laptop, a cello case or cotton reels. Then there are those glad to "re-home" items - concrete from a driveway dig, garden lights or a tin gas meter cabinet. Sometimes requests are from those in need in our brutal economic times (one family was gifted a pop-up tent and children's tyre swing for birthday presents they could not afford) but more often than not the benefit is mutual, for instance, the disposal and re-use of building materials means saving on both sides.

Freecycle is also home to the innovative and downright resourceful.

Some examples include an old Wastemaster with a good motor but wrecked blades that became an essential part of a vortex research project or dress patterns that were re-fashioned by West Auckland book artist Liz Constable into journal covers.

Bolton was alerted to the website by a fellow "accumulation artist" and immediately advertised for the bread tags.

"The Rosedale Village retirement home sent me a lot and I got others from cafes too," she says.

The artwork, which she plans to exhibit at the TelstraClear Pacific Events Centre in May, has become more than the sum of its parts.

Not only are there thousands of gifted bread tags incorporated in it, but it has opened her eyes to the real joy of Freecycle.

"Someone wanted to buy and send me a packet of bread tags but I said 'no' as it defeats the purpose. The idea is to stop stuff going into a landfill and in my small way, I am doing it."

Stephen Dalley, too, has rescued unloved treasures from the dump. This mature student of product design at AUT is bringing the garden of his renovated Mt Roskill state house to life with Freecycle finds.

"I've always been a closet handyman and inventor," Dalley says.

"The part that appeals to me is making something from the good stuff people would often throw away."

Hence a copper toilet cistern has been upended and upcycled to find itself reincarnated as a water fountain that sits under a palm in the front yard. Unwanted decking timber has been transformed into a worm farm and compost bin.

"That was good hardwood with no tanalising, so perfect for the job," says Dalley.

This Mr Fix-It has also ingeniously turned the timber frame from an outdoor umbrella into a shoe rack and has 20 plastic yeast containers, donated through Freecycle, in which to store the nuts and bolts of his newfound passion in his workshop.

"My design philosophy is that products should be built with longevity in mind or at the very least be able to be re-used and upcycled.

"If only the manufacturers of icecream containers made them with a proper click closing tab, they'd be able to be used as lunchboxes for years."

Dalley says he has met many interesting people through his Freecycle forays.

"You'd think it'd be all long-haired hippies but it's not about money; it's people from all walks of life who have the same ideas about sustainability."

Though the website may attract opportunistic folk who advertise selfishly, they are sure to be weeded out promptly if not by the moderators, then by those who genuinely believe in the Freecycle philosophy.

PhD student and health promotion tutor Jule Kunkel insists: "It's not for financial reasons that I like Freecycle, it's because I am very conscious of what I have in my home and what I eat.

"For instance, I own a futon because I want to sleep on natural fibres."

Kunkel, who emigrated from Germany last year, argues that in her birthplace there is greater awareness of recycling and energy saving.

"Maybe that's because there are 80 million people there. We wouldn't dream of leaving lights on or throwing a battery in the everyday rubbish. And we pay for plastic bags everywhere in Germany."

Freecycle has thus far provided Kunkel and her boyfriend Anton with a couch, a scanner, phone, candles, footstool, a TV stand, tea towels and a red chilly bin for their Ponsonby flat. But that's not all - there have been gifts of food, too.

"One lady had planted what she thought were basil seeds in her garden only to discover they were turnips. Once she had bottled and cooked them many ways, she gave the rest away."

Kunkel, who is planning to make a lampshade using old cassette tapes she was given on Freecycle is, as part of her PhD thesis, teaching teenagers that sustainability is integral to a conscious lifestyle and taking care of the environment.

"We live in such a wasteful, throw-away culture. I think adolescence is a great age to start to change society," she says.

At the end of the day, Freecycle is more about good citizenship than it is about material goods.

The personal ties created by the website ensure that communities are strengthened.

It's people power in action and, with a little imagination, design on a magic roundabout.

Have you ever freecycled? What was your experience like?

- NZ Herald

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