How to Get Free Stuff and Help Save the Planet

Buy Nothing groups offer ways to save money, reduce environmental impact, and build community

Many hands exchanging items Illustration: Jason Schneider

We have a love affair with stuff. But when we fall out of love and look for a clean break, the affair often ends with that stuff being tossed in a landfill. 

The “gift economy,’’ a global trend in which people give possessions they no longer need to someone who can use them, is an increasingly popular way to help others while reducing the impact of our purchases on the planet.

“Refusing to buy unnecessary things was a social experiment that we wanted to try,” says Liesl Clark, who, with Rebecca Rockefeller, created the Buy Nothing Project and launched the first Buy Nothing Facebook group in their community of Bainbridge Island, Wash., in 2013. “We said, ‘If you’re going to a store to buy it, maybe just post what you’re going to buy and let people in your community know what you’re looking for,’” she says.

More On Reducing Waste

Clark says they immediately discovered that the very things many of their neighbors were planning to buy could be happily provided free by other community members. Today, more than 5 million people in 44 countries participate in Buy Nothing groups on Facebook and through the BuyNothing app, which was launched late last year. The Freecycle Network, a gift economy network started in 2003, claims over 9 million members worldwide.

“It’s person-to-person giving,” Clark says, explaining one way the gift economy differs from donating goods to traditional groups such as The Salvation Army or Goodwill. “You’re not anonymously donating to an organization; you’re connecting with the person that you are passing your items or your services on to.”

According to Marian Chertow, PhD, a professor at the Yale School of the Environment and director of the Center for Industrial Ecology, the benefits extend well beyond not adding another toaster to the local landfill. “To me, the most important aspect of these gifting groups is social; increasing and fortifying a conserving mindset for those who decide to participate for environmental and communitarian reasons, while also saving on the family budget,” she says.

“I don’t think I’ve bought clothes for my kids—except for special occasions,” says Katie Faust, 33, a home-care nurse who joined a Buy Nothing group on Facebook when she recently moved to Collinsville, Conn., and found out she was pregnant with her second child. “And I’ve met women who have kids roughly my kids’ age, so it’s also branched out into friendships.”

How the Gift Economy Works

The first step is to join a group in your community. You can do this by becoming a member of a Buy Nothing Facebook group, downloading the BuyNothing app, or signing up at or with other groups. You may find dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of members in a group, depending on the size of your community. 

You can then post items you want to donate and scan listings for anything you might need. Appliances, food, clothes, home décor, and toys are just some of the things you might find. “There are plenty of new items,” Clark says, “lots of things that people bought and never used.” I recently snagged tickets to a local theater production of “Dear Evan Hansen” that someone couldn’t fit into their schedule.

Someone posts an item and it usually goes to the first person who requests it. They can then pick it up on a doorstep (addresses are shared via direct message) or, if safety is a concern, a hand-off can be arranged at a busy location or even a police station parking lot. In cases where there’s a lot of interest, some people use virtual random name pickers to choose a recipient. Requests for specific items can also be posted. 

There are a general set of rules. Chief among them: Keep it legal, keep it civil, and participate as yourself, not as a business. It’s considered bad form to share an item’s worth in a post or to buy, sell, or barter for items. Things given should be in good condition unless otherwise noted (“This item is broken; perhaps a whiz out there can repair it!” someone might say), and pictures of items are appreciated. Volunteer administrators moderate groups and reserve the right to delete posts that don’t meet the guidelines.

Keeping It Safe

Ashita Kapoor, associate director of product safety at CR, says that consumers should use caution when accepting items for children (including toys, clothing, high chairs, and cribs) and electric appliances such as hairdryers, dehumidifiers, and power tools. Before accepting any of these, check the website of the Consumer Products Safety Commission to see if it has been involved in a recall. 

 The Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play, a sleeper that was linked to nearly 100 infant deaths, is a good example of why it’s important to research a product before accepting it. The Safe Sleep for Babies Act, passed by the Senate this month, bans inclined sleepers and crib bumper pads, both of which are unsafe for infant sleep.

CR’s safety experts say parents should immediately stop using both of those types of products. Drop-side cribs should also be avoided because they don’t meet the current crib standard and should be destroyed. Child car seats should be avoided because they have expiration dates and may not function properly if they were misused or involved in a crash. 

“Bassinets, cribs, and other forms of infant sleep products, as well as infant swings, should all have legible warning labels,” Kapoor says. “If they do not, you run the risk of not safely operating or assembling the product, which could harm the child.”

A lot could go wrong if something is assembled incorrectly, so ask the person giving the item if instructions are available. If they’re not included, look for them online. Kapoor says that the best and most considerate thing a giver can do is to print out any missing instructions and include them with the product.

“I like how Buy Nothing groups are really rooted in gratitude and community,” says Chelsea Benoit, who says she received a brand-new sectional couch as well as smaller items like a training clicker for her puppy through one. “It comes full circle; you can receive stuff, but then it also motivates me to be even more giving just because I’m so grateful. I try to be modest with what I take and generous with what I give.”