Some things—healthcare reform, for instance—are probably doomed to attract controversy. Others, you might imagine, don’t offer as much scope for disagreement. Until last week, I would have placed the Freecyle movement in the latter group. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Freecycle is a network of groups whose aim is reduce waste by matching people who want to give away stuff with others who need it. Founded in Arizona in 2003, Freecycle now has over 4,000 groups worldwide and over 5m members. It is organised, of course, over the internet; people post messages offering items, which other members of their local group can view via the website or by email. Collection is arranged privately between members; no money changes hands.
I joined my local Freecycle group over two years ago, and have used it to get rid of quite a few items (mostly Ikea furniture). There are minor hassles: some people don’t turn up to collect, others are probably selling the stuff on (which is strictly against the rules), and there are a suspicious amount of hard-luck stories among those posting “wants” for items and replying to offers. Someone in my group once asked for a leather sofa—yeah, I’d like one of those too. But, on the whole, it’s a win-win situation: some people receive things, others get the not-to-be-underestimated service of having their unwanted stuff taken away, plus the warm, smug feeling of having done something environmentally-friendly and charitable.
So, given the simplicity of the system, the recent schism in Freecycle took me by surprise. Last week, about 170 of the 500 or so groups in Britain left the Freecycle network; Nick Morris, the director of Freecycle UK has resigned his post. The British groups cited unreasonable restrictions imposed by the US parent organisation, who refuse to allow UK moderators to establish rules more suited to this country, or indeed any rules of their own. There has also been recent unease over attempts to get groups to drop the existing infrastructure of Yahoo groups and use the new official site, My Freecycle instead. (You can read more the split here and here.)
It remains to be seen whether Freecycle members will follow their mods onto the new site, Freegle, or whether they will stick with Freecycle. It may not particularly matter, as long as items are passed on and kept out of landfill. Yet it’s a shame that this worthwhile initiative has now become the cause of such acrimony. After all, if we’re going to save the planet, a bit more co-operation is a good place to start.