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How the Freecycle Network Works

        Money | Money & Ethics

The Freecycle Future
Deron Beal, founder of Freecycle
Deron Beal, founder of Freecycle
Photo courtesy Jimmy Boegle,

Like most good ideas that become good business models, the Freecycle Network is not the grassroots movement it once was. As it gets more media attention and more members, the founder is making some decisions that many early members aren't happy about.

First, Deron Beal is taking flak for what his volunteer moderators see as micromanaging. Moderators used to have exclusive "ownership" of their local group, but in 2004, Beal decided that every local group should add him as an owner with moderator privileges. According to Beal, it was necessary because some moderators had simply stopped moderating and there had to be a way to pick up the slack. Many members want Freecycle to remain a loose, grassroots network with no centralized control, but Beal seems to have other plans. His fight to defend the trademarked "Freecycle" has alienated part of his anti-consumerism, anti-big-business base. A visit to the Freecycle Web site lets everybody know that "Freecycle" is an adjective and only an adjective. Media representatives are not supposed to use the word "Freecycle" as a noun, a verb or any other form of speech. We can't say "Freecycling," "Freecycler" or "Freecycle it," lest the word become generic. (Avoiding these words is harder than it may seem!)

The other point of contention has to do with the Freecycle Network's sudden corporate sponsorship. In 2005, Beal accepted $130,000 in grant money from the Waste Management (WM) garbage-collection company. Many members of the Network are happy to receive the gift from WM. The problem is that WM has a very poor environmental record, raising questions as to whether the partnership is really a good fit. And in any case, some members of the Freecycle Network were unhappy to learn that their grassroots movement had received a lot of money from the largest waste-collection business in the United States. Several local Freecycle groups left the network and started their own gifting group, abandoning the Freecycle name. One such spinoff is FreeSharing.org, which states on its homepage, "The sites featured on FreeSharing.org are 100% locally owned, grassroots sites, working to help their neighbors and the environment." FreeSharing.org uses the term "Free-Recycling" to describe its activities.

Regardless of the apparent strife within the Freecycle ranks, the movement is still going strong. It plans to expand its operation until it has a presence in every town in every country in the world. Future plans include local education programs to teach people about recycling and waste reduction, and part of the WM grant money will be used to leave Yahoo! Groups and set up independent Web sites that allow for new organization techniques and search tools. The goal is to ease the burden on local moderators and allow for more automation and organization in the gifting process.

For more information on the Freecycle Network and related topics, check out the links on the next page.