Joining a Freecycle group takes about two minutes. You visit Freecycle.org and click on the link for your region.
The next page lists all of the Freecycle groups in that region. In the U.S. Central region, for example, there are 833 groups as of December 2005. So you look for a group in your area. If there's no group near you, you can actually start one up (see "Starting Your Own Freecycle Group" below). If there is already a group in your city or town, you can click on its "GoTo" link to visit the Web page for that group or just click on "Join" to register. Some groups require membership approval. If your local group does, you just fill out a few profile details and write a short message explaining why you want to join. The volunteer moderator for that group approves your membership and sends you a series of e-mails explaining how the process works.
Freecycle groups accept a huge range of free stuff, but there are some rules about what you can offer. It has to be legal, meaning no moonshine or drug paraphernalia, and it must be "family friendly" -- if you're looking to give away your old girlie mags, a bottle of vodka or a gun you bought on a whim, look elsewhere. You're usually allowed to offer a pet to a loving home, but you cannot offer an animal for breeding or other purposes.
Let's say we have an old printer just collecting dust in the closet. Our local Freecycle group might want it, so we'll offer it to our fellow group members. The system is pretty simple:
- To post an offer, we'll send an e-mail to the group's e-mail address or visit the group Web site and click on "Messages." The subject line of our message should be short an simple: "OFFER: Item, general location" is the framework. So our e-mail subject will read "OFFER: Working HP inkjet printer, 15th and Main."
- Once we receive a response, meaning one of our group members wants it, we set up a way to deliver the gift. We can set up any delivery method that works for us. We might give the receiver our address and leave the gift on the porch; we could meet at the mall parking lot and hand over the printer in front of Macy's; we could bring the gift to our workplace and ask the receiver to meet us there. The one thing to keep in mind besides convenience is safety: If it's raining and you can't leave the printer on your front porch, it's probably not a good idea to leave it in your garage and give a perfect stranger your garage door entry code. Just wait until it stops raining.
- Once the interested party picks up the printer, we send out another e-mail with the subject line "TAKEN: Working HP inkjet printer, 15th and Main." One good thing about the Freecycle listserv is that while offers go out to every member in the group, responses come only to the member who made the offer. This saves a lot of inbox space, but it also means we need to let everybody know the printer is no longer available so we don't get any more responses for it.
Although giving is the main idea, you can ask for things you need, too. It's important not to abuse this privilege or ask for luxury items, because you'll quickly get a reputation for being greedy (and therefore not worthy of receiving gifts). But if you need something, and it's the kind of thing someone might stick in the basement and forget about, like an old space heater, it's okay to let people know you want it. You simply send out a message with the subject line "WANTED: Space heater." If you get any responses, you arrange a pick up, followed by another message with the subject line "Received: Space heater" so everyone knows your need has been met and they don't have to keep combing through their attic for that space heater they swore they stuck up there 10 years ago.
And that's it! A few e-mails, a short exchange with a fellow member and you get to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Everybody wins -- so it might seem strange that many people are angry with the Freecycle Network for what they perceive as the corruption of a good thing.