- finding a new home for your unwanted stuff so it doesn't end up in a landfill;
- finding stuff that you can use at no cost; and
- saving the resources used for making new stuff by keeping old items in circulation.
So what would be the perfect way to keep all the benefits of Freecycle without any of the drawbacks? This month's Green American has an answer: a free store. These range from actual storefronts to folding tables set up under a tarp, where you can drop off any unwanted items and pick up anything that looks useful. According to the article, this business model does not, as you might think, encourage people to sweep in and grab everything on the shelves, the way some extreme couponers have been known to do during extremely good sales; since everything that's free today will still be free tomorrow, there's no particular urgency about nabbing the bargains before they disappear. Of course, it's apparent that a store where everything is free does not generate any income, and a store is bound to have higher operating costs than a Freecycle group, so these stores rely on outside funding, generally in the form of grants, to pay their overhead. (Interestingly, though, a free store in Portland, Oregon is managing to operate on a for-profit basis by charging $20 a year for membership, which is probably a good deal if you consider how much you could save in a year by "shopping" there.)
Free stores of various types are operating successfully in several U.S. cities, including Portland, Baltimore, and San Francisco. (Historical note: the free-store movement in the US was actually started in San Francisco by a hippie group called the Diggers, who took their name from the 17th-century English farming collective celebrated in the folk song "The World Turned Upside Down.") A quick Google search didn't turn up any free stores in New Jersey, but there is an informal one in New York City (which has apparently, and bizarrely, been the target of repeated arson attempts). Also, Philadelphia recently hosted its first Really Really Free Market, a gathering at which individuals can swap services as well as goods.
Unfortunately, I don't know if I'll have a chance to get up to Brooklyn any time in the near future, and it certainly isn't something I could do on a regular basis. But those of you who live or work in large cities might find it worth your while to do a quick Google search on "free store, city name" and see what turns up. The location may not be terribly convenient, but you can't beat the prices.