By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 6/3/2008 9:03:02 AM ET 2008-06-03T13:03:02

My husband and I recently ate dinner at the home of a friend who had just relocated and settled into her own place. We complimented her on her new digs, which featured a stunning white couch and loveseat, nifty red throw pillows, and an attractive dining room table with matching chairs.

After each detail we noticed and admired, our friend smiled triumphantly. “Free!” “Free!” “Free!” she chirped again and again.

It turns out that our friend is a master freecycler. This led to a big discussion about freecycling over our spaghetti dinner that night – and it got me thinking about this column.

“Freecycle” rhymes with “recycle” for a reason. The term means “free recycling” – as in, giving stuff away and obtaining stuff free of charge from folks who live in your area. In addition to saving people hundreds if not thousands of dollars, freecycling is good for the environment because it keeps oodles of junk out of landfills.

The freecycling concept isn’t new; the Freecycle Network actually got its start about five years ago. But … have you tried freecycling yet? If not, why not? The following tips can help you get started.

1. Know how to begin. You can find a local group of freecyclers through the Freecycle Network. Once you join, you’ll start getting e-mail messages listing offered, wanted and accepted items. You’ll see all sorts of items included in those postings, from furniture to lawn equipment to exercise gear to clothing to … you name it!

2. Brace yourself for a deluge of e-mail. You can create a separate folder where all Freecycle mail gets directed, or you can opt to receive daily digests once or twice a day. You also can simply check your group’s online message board. The daily digests and the message board likely won’t be as timely as the immediate e-mail messages, though, so you might miss out on items you want.

3. Check out other recycling groups as well. You also can connect with like-minded recyclers through Sharing Is Giving, FreeCycleAmerica.org, the ReUseIt Network and FreeSharing.org. On the Craigslist site for your part of the country, you’ll find a “free” section under “for sale.”

4. Mind your manners and attitude. Always have an eye toward giving, not just receiving. For your first posting, offer to give something away rather than announce what you want. Also, don’t try to trade or swap through freecycling sites; the idea is to give stuff away with no strings attached.

5. Show respect in your postings. Respect people’s time by keeping your postings brief. Also remember that this isn’t a place to make personal attacks, spam people, solicit for money or share political views or religious beliefs.

6. Keep it legal, honest and clean. Big posting no-no’s include: pornography, alcohol, tobacco, drugs of any kind (including medicines, vitamins and creams), firearms and other weapons. Postings should be appropriate for all ages. Be up front about the age, condition and size of items you’re giving away, and post photos if possible.

7. Stay safe. Avoid posting personal information, such as your phone number or address, for strangers to see. With pickups and drop-offs, avoid going to a stranger’s home by yourself or having a stranger come over if you’re home alone. Instead, make arrangements to meet in a public place or be sure to have someone with you. You also could leave items outside for a recipient and just keep your door locked.

8. Don’t leave people hanging. Be punctual and thoughtful when it comes to scheduling pickups and drop-offs. If you’re late or you fail to show up altogether, you’ll be wasting someone else’s time. Also, don’t dally about picking up an item you’ve accepted. Take it off the giver’s hands within three days max.

9. Examine items carefully. Remember, a big benefit of freecycling is the ability to unclutter your home. Before you make someone else’s trash your treasure, make sure it functions the way it should. If it doesn’t, how realistic are your chances of fixing it? Don’t take it home if it will simply create more clutter.

10. Decide how to handle multiple responses. If you post a popular item, you may be inundated with dozens of e-mail messages within minutes. What to do? One option is to give priority to a struggling local charity if such a charity responds. Another is to randomly draw a name from a hat. No matter what, don’t just say, “It’s on the porch for whoever gets here first” – that is, unless you want to cause some bad feelings.

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