Gift economies keep goods in communities and out of the landfill


My boomer dad doesn’t do social media. So when he wanted to unload a decades-old desk ill-suited to his new condo, he went old school: He posted a flier on the bulletin board at MOM’s Organic Market in Bryn Mawr. “Free to a good home: pine desk in good condition.” He included the desk’s dimensions, a photo and his contact information.


Eventually my dad’s eagerness to move the inventory overrode his distaste for all things cyber, and he took me up on my previously spurned offer to post the desk online.

The author helped her father find a new home for his storied desk through the online gifting community. Photo courtesy of Sophia D. Merow.

Philadelphians itching to shed excess stuff have no shortage of options, even if they lack the time or hauling power to schlep to Goodwill, The Salvation Army or Philly AIDS Thrift. Too many options, for some tastes.

“I love exchanging goods without any money involved,” wrote Mount Airy resident Nelson Chu Pavlosky on decentralized social media platform Mastodon in January. But there are so many “competing websites/apps/communities” in the region, he lamented, that “if you want to see all of the free stuff that’s available, you need to check them all, regularly. If you want to maximize the number of people who see the stuff you’re giving away, I guess you have to post on all of them.”

With this preamble, Pavlosky polled his audience on the relative merits of four facilitators of moneyless exchange, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Hyperlocal social networking service Nextdoor has a “for sale & free” section. There’s a “free” subcategory within the “for sale” category on classified advertisement website Craigslist. At Freecycle.org one can join “10,568,815 members across the globe” in a “grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns and thus keeping good stuff out of landfills.”

And then there are the Facebook-based groups. Those with “Buy Nothing” in their names are neighborhood affiliates of the Buy Nothing Project (BNP), a global conglomeration of community-based groups founded in 2013 with the aim of growing local gift economies. Groups that have broken away from Buy Nothing in reaction to perceived power plays by BNP’s founders bear names like “Community Gifting” and “Free Your Stuff.” Special-interest groups also abound: Frugal Fishtown Kids, for instance, is “a place for local Fishtown-area families to buy/sell/share new or gently used baby, kid and maternity items.”

Motivations for participating in the gift economy vary almost as widely as ways to do so.

For Adam Eyring, co-moderator of NW Philly Freecycle, the impetus was a desire to combat the too-much-trash problem. “I get frustrated with the amount of waste going out,” he says. “So I joined Freecycle because I believed in the goal of it, which is to minimize landfill waste, to get people to exchange goods.”

Frugal Fishtown Kids admin Clare Dych cites the need to efficiently free up space often at a premium in Philadelphia residences. “We all live in rowhomes,” she explains, “and we’re all eager to get these, I call them LPOs — large plastic objects — out of our houses as quickly as possible once our kids don’t need them anymore.”

Decluttering and waste reduction feel even better, of course, when others in the community benefit. When Eyring’s cathode-ray tube television no longer met his entertainment needs — “it couldn’t handle some of the digital stuff” — a few years ago, he posted it on Freecycle, where someone claimed it for a homebound couple with health issues. “They didn’t need anything fancy. They didn’t need cable,” Eyring remembers. “And they were happy. So I was happy that they got something that works for them.”

For Dych, reminiscing about community gifting elicits warm fuzzies, happy tears, pride in her neighborhood’s solidarity. Her family gave the Barbie Dreamhouse they’d outgrown to a neighbor, who sent a video of her son “absolutely in heaven” setting up and playing with the new-to-him toy. “It’s just such a lovely feeling to get a video back of a kid being like over the moon,” Dych says.

What brings tears to Dych’s eyes, though, is seeing groups like Frugal Fishtown Kids or Fishtown Mamas, a Facebook group she previously administered, spring into action in times of critical need. If someone unexpectedly gets custody of a grandchild, say, they might require diapers, a bassinet, a baby monitor — immediately and out of the blue. “It is really, really incredible,” Dych says, “to witness that when somebody is in a crisis that they can post within the community and say, ‘I’m really struggling a bit. Can you help?’ and everybody just rushes in.”

Gift economy regulars like Dych often credit their platform(s) of choice with forging a not-insubstantial fraction of their social connections. At a gathering of moms at Dych’s house last fall, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood asked Dych how she knew everyone. “Repeated small interactions over time for the most part,” she replied. “Every little interaction and touch kind of builds over time,” she explains, “and you really get to know people.”

“There’s so many people in my neighborhood that I know through Buy Nothing,” echoes South Philly textile artist Julie Woodard, “through swapping something with them.”

If you’ve ever plucked something out of someone’s trash and made off with it, you yourself have stooped.

Another variant of internet-aided rehoming of unwanted possessions — stooping — presents fewer opportunities for forming friendships, but it does reduce landfill influx and afford the thrill of the thrifting chase, the serendipitous find. Stooping need not involve social media or even the internet — if you’ve ever plucked something out of someone’s trash and made off with it, you yourself have stooped — but the Instagram account StoopingPHL increases the likelihood of castoffs getting into new hands before the trashman cometh. Philadelphians who “spot something free on the streets” direct-message a photo and location to StoopingPHL, and manager Tanya Mayeux tips off the account’s almost 7,000 followers: There’s a coat rack at Salter and South 2nd streets; a “small computer desk, tan leather couch, and fully functional 1970s organ” at 1705 Manton Street; a “stunning couch!” on Brown between 16th and 17th.

Mayeux says that much of the decor and furniture complimented by visitors in her Graduate Hospital apartment she snagged from a neighbor’s discard pile.

An avid stooper long before she took over management of StoopingPHL last summer, Mayeux says that much of the decor and furniture complimented by visitors in her Graduate Hospital apartment she snagged from a neighbor’s discard pile. She often refinishes or otherwise spruces up items she adopts and is cognizant of the potential sometimes disguised beneath a patina of wear, of her fellow stoopers’ ability to discern a future even for the seemingly played out. Seldom does Mayeux deem a submission to StoopingPHL unworthy of posting. “You never know what people are looking for,” she says. “So I try to keep an open mind about that.”

Tanya Mayeux has furnished her home with treasures left on Philly stoops. Photography by Chris Baker Evens.

The old saw “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” inevitably arises in accounts of Buy Nothing and its ilk, and for good reason. Perhaps it’s only stoopers who snatch diamonds in the rough from beneath trash collectors’ very noses, but all of the groups and tools under the gift economy umbrella accomplish the repurposing of items that would otherwise have been classed as rubbish.

One need not peruse community gifting listings for long before coming across offers of foodstuffs sampled but disliked, personal care products not to the purchaser’s taste: a bottle of keratin leave-in conditioner “about 90% full,” an open bag of strawberry-flavored electrolyte drink mix with “15 packets remaining.” “If you buy something in bulk for your kid,” jokes Dych, “the odds of them deciding they don’t like it the next day skyrocket. My kid hates these pouches and I have like 20 of them. What do I do with them?”

Community gifting to the rescue.

Once textile artist Woodard’s talent for creative reuse — she transforms used and deadstock fabric into nature-inspired art — became known across the giveaway groups in and around her Point Breeze neighborhood, bags of scraps started appearing on her doorstep.

“I was getting people who had damaged textiles that weren’t in good enough condition to donate,” Woodard recalls. “People have ripped jeans, hole-filled sweaters, or they ask, ‘My dog partially chewed this pillowcase. Can you use it?’”

Even as she repurposes material most would regard as beyond salvage, Woodard has gifted neighbors some pretty big-ticket items: a spare Vitamix, for instance, and a brand new Instant Pot. When listing something sure-to-be popular on more than one group, Woodard will usually include a “cross-posted” notification so claimants don’t assume that just because they were first to express interest they’ll score the loot. How donors choose recipients on these platforms is up to them. “Some people say ‘first to respond,’ ‘first who is able to pick up,’” observes Woodard. “Others really want to hear a story of what you would use this for.”

“I am put off by the bluntness of people who sound greedy when they just say, ‘I’ll take this!’ or ‘When can I pick this up?’ instead of using some gratitude,” says Betsy Teutsch, a moderator of the Facebook-based Community Gifting West Mt. Airy. “We do try to model mutual appreciation.”

Ungrateful beneficiaries aren’t the only gift-economy frustration, of course. There’s the aforementioned drama between the Buy Nothing parent organization and individual groups resentful of attempts at top-down control. There’s the occasional scam whereby bad actors try to con a Freecycler out of money — by requesting an up-front delivery fee, say — or use a platform to harvest email addresses. Then there’s perhaps the most common scourge: the no-shows. “People tend to flake on pickups,” says Marlena Masitto, owner of Philly Neat Freaks.

As a professional organizer, Masitto has mixed feelings about community gifting groups. She shudders to think of should-be-jettisoned possessions piling up — or being “pulled back into circulation” — if listings fail to spark joy in neighbors. “If you’ve had something posted, say, for a week and it hasn’t been picked up,” Masitto advises, “swing the items past your local donation spot and move along.”

For those keen to keep things local or hoping to exchange some in-person pleasantries with their goods, swaps are a viable alternative. Northern Liberties’ Ray’s Reusables hosts clothing swaps, as does Narberth’s SHIFT. The third annual Plus Size Clothing Swap of Greater Philadelphia will take place at Philly Fatcon in October. On the last Saturday of every month, “anything that can be carried” — from outdoor gear, appliances and plants to pet supplies, non-perishable food and books — can be dropped off at the Really Really Free Market — “promoting a gift economy through mutual aid” — in West Philly’s Malcolm X Park.

That Philadelphia is a walkable “city of neighborhoods” makes it particularly well suited to the recirculation of goods within communities, says StoopingPHL’s Mayeux. “I’ve definitely hauled home a bench or side table,” she laughs, adding that, as a New Yorker, if she saw something desirable on the curb, it would often be impracticable to get it home via a long, public-transit-dependent commute.

“I can walk things to most people’s houses if they opt for something I’ve offered,” says Teutsch, “or pick up on foot. It makes it even greener!”

The gift economy, then, has much to recommend it: it reduces waste, builds community, helps neighbors in need, saves participants money, curtails consumer capitalism … It can even encourage exercise.

“Get out there and get your steps in,” urges Mayeux, “and get some free stuff.”

My dad has neither started stooping nor joined Freecycle — “great if you do not want to deal with Facebook,” notes Eyring — but he does concede that my newfangled way of publicizing the availability of his desk produced a more-than-satisfactory outcome. My Craigslist post — 10 miles separate my dad and me, so neighborhood-specific groups were out — caught the eye of an up-and-coming novelist. When she arrived at my dad’s condo to collect the desk, they discovered a shared fondness for dogs and familiarity with Ithaca, New York. She gave my dad a copy of her first book. He likes to think that her second — due out in August — was written at what was once his desk.

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