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Freecycle: Disposing of Good Old Stuff

by Adam C. Engst

Reduce, reuse, recycle. We've all heard this waste minimization mantra of the environmental movement, but most of the emphasis tends to go on recycling. Important as it is, recycling should in fact be the second-to-last resort (ahead of the landfill, of course). When seeking to minimize the amount of waste, it's best to reduce consumption to begin with, and to reuse those items that you do acquire, recycling only that which is left.

This is one of the reasons I'm such a proponent of using older Macs and peripherals for as long as possible; if you choose to put an older Mac to work in some secondary task after buying a new one, that's reuse, and is way better than sending that Mac off for recycling.

Ancient Engines -- At some point, though, keeping old equipment going becomes more effort and investment than it's worth. We experienced this recently, since we had an Apple LaserWriter Select 360 from 1994 and a Canon PC-6 photocopier from 1995 that were both having trouble with print quality. The problems stemmed, I believe, from refilling the pair's toner cartridges rather than purchasing new cartridges. Although toner refilling seems like an excellent way to cut costs and reduce waste, I can't personally recommend it. The LaserWriter had taken to printing small dots in particular parts of the page, and the photocopier periodically (perhaps due to humidity) printed horribly blotchy pages. The problem is that toner cartridges for these devices can cost between $50 and $100, and many (if not most) are refurbished anyway.

So we were faced with paying between $100 and $200 to keep the printer and photocopier running, with all the quirks they'd developed over the years: recalcitrant manual feeds, the LaserWriter's funky Asante FriendlyNet Ethernet to LocalTalk Bridge that required specific resetting after every power outage (see "Printer Sharing and Print Spooling in Mac OS X [1]," 2003-03-31), an output tray that constantly fell off the photocopier, and so on. In other words, although the printer and photocopier were fairly functional, they were clearly declining in utility. Similarly, our standalone Sharp fax machine from 1996, though functional, always messed up if we fed it more than one page at a time. It was time to update some hardware.

Rather than buy a separate printer, photocopier, and fax machine, since none of them receive use more than once a week or so, we decided to spend $400 on an all-in-one device with a color laser engine. Although we also have an Epson Photo Stylus 870 color inkjet printer for photo printing, we detest the constant cleaning and fussing with expensive cartridges. The best-liked all-in-one seemed to be the Epson AcuLaser CX11NF [2], which combines a color laser printer with scanning, faxing, and copying. It connects directly to our Ethernet network, has an automatic document feeder, and in general has been a good replacement for the LaserWriter, photocopier, and fax machine.

What to do with the old hardware? We decided to store the fax machine in the attic as a backup, since it's not inconceivable that we could end up with a need to fax something with a signature fairly urgently. But the LaserWriter and photocopier would just be taking up more attic space, since we could always fall back on the inkjet printer for printouts, and photocopying is never essential. It was time to pass them on to someone else, and frankly, someone who wouldn't expect us to help care for them. In other words, we weren't about to pass them on to a friend or relative.

Enter Freecycle -- Back when we moved from Seattle to Ithaca in 2001, I tried selling some items on eBay, but quickly gave up on the idea because it was just way too much work for the reward. (Oddly, an eBay study [3] found that Ithacans sell more items to international buyers than any other ZIP code in the United States.) Also, I wasn't sufficiently certain of the functionality of these devices that I felt comfortable selling them - in theory I could have listed them in eBay such that they were local to Ithaca, or I could have posted a note on craigslist [4] for Ithaca. But in either case, even with full disclosure, if the buyer had trouble, I would have felt bad. (I've since learned that craigslist has a "free" section, but at least in Ithaca, it's used relatively sporadically.)

I had heard about the Freecycle Network [5], an Internet service that connects people with stuff to give away with people who want free stuff, but until this point I had never tried it. It turned out to be extremely simple. I went to the Freecycle Groups [6] page to find the Ithaca group, followed the link to its Yahoo Groups mailing list, subscribed, and read the ground rules (this is important, since some things - like the required Subject tags - are not inherently obvious to a newcomer), and then sent a pair of email messages to the list, describing the LaserWriter and photocopier.

My messages were approved by the moderator around noon on a Saturday. Four hours later, I had a note from someone who wanted the LaserWriter, and two hours after that, a message from someone who wanted the photocopier. I waited a day to see if other requests came in (one did, for the photocopier), and then I replied to the first two people, setting up a pick-up time and giving them directions. The first guy arrived on time, chatted ever so briefly, loaded the printer into his truck, and left in about two minutes. The woman who wanted the photocopier chatted a bit longer when she arrived, since it turned out she was opening a store downtown, which led to the realization that we had mutual friends (that sort of thing always happens in Ithaca). Even still - total time to disposal: five minutes.

While I was receiving the Freecycle mailing list messages, I also saw a note from someone who was moving and needed packing peanuts. I happened to have a few boxes and bags full of styrofoam peanuts that I hadn't gotten around to donating to a package store, so I sent her a message saying that she'd be welcome to pick them up. Since she lived only a few miles away, she hopped right over to get them. No fuss, no muss, less crud in the garage.

So I'm extremely happy with Freecycle, and I anticipate using it a bunch in the future to get rid of random things that I don't want to sell because they're too old or sketchy, or not-for-resale items that companies didn't want back and that are just cluttering my office. I don't expect to acquire much, if anything, via Freecycle, since I'm at the stage of life where more isn't better. I did have to resist temptation when someone offered a free 1890s antique pool table in excellent condition, since we have no space for such a behemoth. But I can remember back to when Tonya and I were just getting started, and being able to make use of other people's castoffs would have been incredibly helpful.

I've been raving about my success in ditching my old hardware to friends, some of whom have said they would be uncomfortable with people coming to their houses for pickup. That's easily dealt with, since you can set an alternate location for pickup if you want, trading a bit of convenience for additional privacy.

Other Regiving Networks -- It appears that there has been some controversy surrounding Freecycle [7] itself, with the founder defending his trademark vigorously and accepting corporate support from Waste Management, Inc. From what I can tell, the controversies don't particularly affect the individual local groups, which are all run by volunteer moderators. However, there are also plenty of other groups, such as the ReUseIt Network [8], that support the general concept of "regiving [9]" unwanted items. A quick survey of these found that most were smaller than comparable Freecycle groups. The Ithaca Freecycle group has over 5,400 members, which is pretty impressive when you consider that the population of Ithaca is only about 30,000, and the surrounding Tompkins County is around 100,000.

Whatever the specific approach you choose, I strongly encourage everyone to consider Freecycle, another regiving network, or an appropriate charity when you're trying to figure out how to dispose of old hardware, software, or just about anything else. If we're going to expend valuable resources creating the objects that inhabit our everyday lives, let's at least extract as much use out of them as possible. Now to get rid of the elderly QMS PS-410 laser printer in the attic that the LaserWriter Select 360 replaced...