Back in the pre-internet days, if you were cleaning out your cupboards and found five empty jars, a can of beans you were never going to use and some mystery kitchen tools, you’d have to decide whether you were going to add them to the landfill, transport them to a donation site, pawn them off on unsuspecting guests or leave them in the cupboard for another 5 years. But thanks to the Buy Nothing Project, people with excess stuff can conveniently rehome it to neighbors in an online group. Same goes for those in need of something. They can ask neighbors for, say, a pair of size seven rollerskates or a cat-climbing structure.

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As the official Buy Nothing website stresses, “The rules are simple: Post anything you’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Keep it legal. No hate speech. No buying or selling, no trades or bartering, we’re strictly a gift economy.”

Related: 6 of the best places to donate your things

Behind the scenes in the Buy Nothing Project

It all started when friends Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller started the first Buy Nothing group in their community, an island in the Salish Sea off the coast of Seattle. They wanted to focus on the “reduce” part of the three Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle, plus adding two more: rethink and refuse. Clark and Rockefeller soon witnessed the positive effects the group had on the community. “We saw this commitment to a single group help people build trust within a group that was made up of their real-life neighbors, and we saw people begin to understand that Buy Nothing groups are more about connections and trust between people than about the fast and anonymous transfer of free stuff,” they wrote on their website.

They believe in the importance of coming from a place of abundance, rather than acting like a charity. People give, ask, share, lend and express gratitude. There’s strictly no bartering or money exchanged. Buy Nothing is about giving and sharing.

As of now, Buy Nothing groups are set up through Facebook. There might already be one in your neighborhood. If not, you can start your own, with plenty of support from the Buy Nothing Project, as outlined here. This spring, the project is launching a sharing app in addition to its Facebook groups.

yellow power-washer with "For Free" sign attached sitting on a sidewalk

Economic advantages of the gifting economy

The most obvious advantage of a Buy Nothing group is saving money. Results from the project’s latest survey of over 2,000 members found that the vast majority saved money monthly by participating. To get some specifics about how Buy Nothing has helped members, I turned to my local neighborhood group in Portland, Oregon. Buy Nothing Laurelhurst/Sunnyside members proved as willing to share their stories as they are to part with their unused bikes and excess compost worms.

People with fast-growing kids are especially enthusiastic about their groups. “I have two young children and it seems like they grow out of (or lose interest in) clothing and toys weekly,” Mandy Campbell said. “With Buy Nothing, I’ve received bags of barely worn, sometimes luxury brand clothing, for them and some of their favorite toys like the Black and Decker tool bench we gave to my 2-year-old for Christmas.”

Another member, Maureen O. Morgan, gave high praises. “BN has been a pandemic godsend!” Morgan said. “We’ve received barn yard cookie cutters, costumes, expanded tinker toy sets, and a mountain of little people cars and figures which combine to a year of distractions.” Some cities even have Buy Nothing groups focused solely on kids’ needs, according to member Lesley Merritt.

Parents also appreciate how Buy Nothing teaches children the joy of sharing. When Morgan’s toddler struggled to get his feet into shoes he’d outgrown, they decided it was time to pass them on to a smaller neighbor. “’That’s a sweet thing to share, Mom,’ he told me,” she said.

Campbell appreciates the ease of Buy Nothing. “For working parents, it’s incredibly convenient to throw things on your porch rather than do regular trips to donation or junk facilities,” she said. “And on top of those great benefits, I love that we get to meet our neighbors and maybe even find neighborhood friends for our little ones.”

The environmental benefits of sharing

Members also like to keep from adding to landfills while also reducing demand for manufacturing more things. Kylie Jackson benefited from a Buy Nothing group with a very specific ask: old denim. “We were able to collect enough denim insulation from food delivery services to insulate our whole van!” Jackson said. “It was piles and piles of the denim and wool insulation.”

People have especially turned to rampant online ordering during the pandemic. But those conscientious about emissions and packaging waste prefer walking, biking or driving (for heavy stuff) a few blocks to pick up used items from their neighbors.

“I recently received a punching bag from the group for my son,” member Kirsten Burt said. “This saved me a lot of money, and saved me from ordering from Amazon, with all of the packaging and carbon emissions that would have been involved.”

kid carrying box of old, gently used toys

Helping others in need

Some members are on the lookout for stuff for people they know are in great need. Kate Haas volunteers with a refugee family and has found items in a Buy Nothing group to help them out. “The mom can’t work because of COVID, so things are very tight for them financially,” Haas said. “Through BN I’ve found them a lovely rug, clothing, linens, a mixer, and most recently, a vacuum.”

Campbell adopted a family in need for Christmas 2020. “I was able to give them just about everything on their list from Buy Nothing. From dolls to diapers to ceramic mugs, our neighbors were quick to drop things off for the family before the holidays, and the family we gave presents to was so grateful.”

Community connections

One of the best things about Buy Nothing groups is that people get to know their neighbors through sharing and lending, giving and receiving. Now, with most people staying close to home due to the pandemic, that seems more valuable than ever. “After being in this group and the larger group prior to this for almost 8 years, I have come to meet so many great neighbors,” said member Dev Ansel. “I am in a lot of free site groups and they all have their purpose, but only in these Buy Nothing groups have I made true connections, and that is priceless. I can make coffee and think of the neighbor that gave me the coffee beans and the cup. Even under COVID quarantine, I am having coffee with my neighbor.”

+ Buy Nothing Project

Image via Adobe Stock