Deron Beal, Freecycle creator

One year ago, Deron Beal, the enterprise manager for RISE, Inc. (a nonprofit that provides recycling to businesses in the greater downtown area while providing transitional employment to Tucsonans in need), decided to create a Web-based community for people to get rid of stuff they didn't want--by getting it to people who did--thus easing the burden on landfills. Some e-mails between friends ultimately led to the development of Freecycle.org, and in the year since, it's literally swept the nation. Today, almost 450 cities are "Freecycling," with nearly 70,000 participants worldwide. And Freecycle has gotten gobs of media attention, too, in publications such as the Utne Reader and The New York Times. We recently sat down with Beal at RISE's Toole Avenue warehouse and discussed the meteoric success of Freecycle.

What thoughts do you have, considering what's happened with Freestyle during the last year?

I am absolutely flabbergasted. I had no clue it would strike such a chord all over the place. I thought it was a utilitarian tool that might help people out locally, and when the group grew with the first newspaper article to 200-300 members, and it still worked, I realized I was onto something big here. When I set up the Freecycle.org Web page to let other cities know how to do it, it spread like wildfire.

What's the most bizarre thing that's happened in the last year with Freecycle?

There's just weird stuff happening all the time; that's the nature of the beast. We have a moderators' (online discussion) group, and I have gotten to know these people really well--their quirks, their personalities. ... I've never spoken to them or seen them, but I know them better than some people I see across town on a regular basis. It's pretty weird.

What are some of the weirdest items that you've seen offered or requested on Freecycle?

Oh, gosh; there's always something weird. I'd have to look and see what's been posted.

Well, before I came here, I checked. Within the last day or two, there's been a request for an old, broken-down motorcycle; VHS tapes for a blood-donation service; an old wooden door; bird cages; someone wanted a spice rack, and even a 1978 Camaro seats and door panels. What are some of the things that top that list?

Well, we once had a "lonely heart" posting. He said something to the effect of "OFFER: Nice, elderly gentleman to a good home," or something like that. ... His partner saw e-mails coming to him from a Freecycle address, thought he was having an affair, and left. ... Shortly thereafter, we made a new rule that you couldn't Freecycle yourself or loved ones.

Was the poor guy able to Freecycle himself before the new rule was put in place?

(Laughs.) I am not sure.

What are some future plans for Freecycle.org?

We're trying desperately to keep the different groups in contact with each other, to help them learn, to show them what the press release (to get local media attention) looks like, etc. Ultimately, I'd like to have a freestanding Web page, to (eliminate the need for advertising-funded) services like Yahoo! Groups, to take out the commerce--no pop-up ads. The Web page would have announcements for local Freecycle events, like swap meets, and a chat room.

What's been the most surprising thing about Freecycle to you?

In the beginning, I saw the concept would work; I expected that. What I didn't expect was that this community would develop. It's allowed a certain type of person--about 2,000 of them locally--to get together. It has kind of this interconnected, small-town feel. Of course, there's an Otis in every town, someone who likes to cause trouble.

Ah, and if an Otis gets two "strikes" from the moderator, he or she's kicked out of the group, right? How many people have been kicked out locally?

One person this year, total. If we can keep it to only one person a year, that's not so bad. We've had jokesters--people who said they wanted free sex--but if you razz them, they usually stop doing that. ... You have to do it in a fun way.

This all started in an effort to decrease the burden on local landfills. Any concept of how much stuff you've kept from getting thrown away?

Let's see. We have about 450 groups (in different cities); we'll say 400, because that's easier to multiply. You figure roughly 30 things a day are exchanged per group; that's 12,000 per day. You figure one pound per thing, and that's six tons a day. That's probably a pretty conservative estimate.