Packrats and good - Samaritans recycle their clutter online

Sunday, October 10, 2004

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Bill Heeter admits he has a problem. He loves junk.

But the retired businessman is one of a growing number of packrats jumping online to give away their clutter or to take some off the hands of somebody else.

In less than two years, freecycling has caught on worldwide, with about one-half million givers and takers of everything from couches to cars and pingpong tables to pianos.

A few months ago, Heeter visited and joined the online community.

Heeter's biggest problem was books. A thousand or more titles from an Internet textbook selling endeavor piled high in his suburban Kansas City garage.

He offered the books through the freecycling network for anyone to take, and nearly 3,000 freecyclers in and around Kansas City got an e-mail. The same day a woman replied and offered to take all the books to sell at a church garage sale.

With his garage cleared, Heeter had space for a lawnmower and a leaf blower --acquired for free from fellow freecyclers.

Since discovering the "virtual curb" of sorts, Heeter and his wife have been cleaning out closets and offering more stuff to the free message group hosted by

Deron Beal started the grass-roots movement in May 2003 in Tucson, Ariz., to slow the growing landfills in his community. The idea has scattered through cyberspace and word of mouth to about 1,500 cities worldwide.

There are freecyclers in Australia and Alaska. Portland, Ore., has the largest freecycling group with about 10,000 members. About 300 people freecycle in Manhattan, Kan., with the same number in and Jefferson City, Mo. Every participating city has a local volunteer to manage the group.

In an era of Internet scams, widespread computer viruses and illegal music downloads, freecycling is bringing priceless good deeds to the Web by the thousands. The stories freecyclers tell are evidence.

An elementary school librarian received an expensive machine that prints braille text for her school's only blind student. Low-income families find brand-new clothes for their children. Even cars have been freecycled.

"Internet communities like freecycling serve a practical and emotional purpose and the Internet lets us bring these like-minded people together quickly," said Mary Chayko, a sociology professor at the College of Saint Elizabeth in New Jersey, who started researching Internet communities the late 1990s.

Her 2002 book "Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age," explored why and how people connect on the Internet.

"People who form and join online communities do so for very authentic reasons," Chayko said, "and research tells us that these groups are no less genuine than real-life bonds that are made in everyday life."

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