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Consumer Reports

One person's trash is another person's treasure on 'freecycling' sites | (KRT) Think curbside recycling without the curb - a virtual junkyard at your fingertips.

And best of all, everything is free.

Get ready for "freecycling," the latest trend on the Internet, where you can unload the most pesky household clutter or grab some diamond-in-the-rough collectibles for yourself - all via e-mail.

Sites launched in Waukesha and Madison have introduced the freecycling concept to Wisconsin, offering Internet users the chance to join a swap meet where the term "window shopping" takes on a whole new meaning.

The only rule is that no money can change hands.

"It's worked phenomenally well," said Courtney Marschalek, founder of the Waukesha site. "It's just freecycle madness."

The concept works like this: Donors list items they have available, along with their e-mail addresses. Other visitors browsing the site then contact a donor via e-mail, and the two parties make private arrangements for the actual exchange.

The conservation-minded outreach is intended to relieve pressure on landfills and protect the environment by encouraging people to recycle virtually everything they own.

Furniture, appliances, clothing, toys - you name it, and, theoretically, someone will take it off your hands.

In the past two months, the Waukesha freecycling site has attracted about 30 participants, while the Madison effort has drawn more than 100 people looking to unload computer equipment, lawnmowers, TV sets and more.

Jay McClellan of Menomonee Falls stumbled onto the Waukesha site while researching conservation issues on the Internet. He ended up listing for donation an old bicycle that he has not used in years.

Nobody has pedaled away with the bicycle yet, but McClellan thinks the freecycling concept shows a lot of potential.

"I like the idea of not filling up the landfill," he said. "And I like getting stuff for free."

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Sean Penrith, a business owner near Wausau, Wis., has posted a solicitation to Madison-area freecyclers for old mattresses. Penrith's company uses recycled bedsprings in fashioning artistic glassware, vases and other household items.

Now that a supply arrangement with a retail mattress store has run out, Penrith hopes freecycling will bring him a fresh stock of raw material.

"I think the idea is really good," he said of freecycling. "It's going to have to reach a critical mass."

Proponents say freecycling sites elsewhere have blossomed into marketplaces with 2,000 or more participants. The idea originated in Tucson, Ariz., and has spread to several cities across the country.

The potential for widespread participation is significant in Madison, because of the volume of furniture and other goods discarded routinely by students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Kelly Cox, founder of the Madison site, said freecycling allows those students to give away their throwaways - and possibly even save themselves the hassle of hauling stuff to the curb.

"List it here. Somebody might come and get it," Cox said.

Of course, many people still want to donate household items to non-profit agencies that resell the goods and use the money to benefit people in need, said Pat Boelter, a spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries in Milwaukee.

Boelter said she does not view freecycling as a competitive threat.

"There are plenty of people who want their items not only to go to people who need them, but to go for a good purpose," she said.

But Karen Fiedler, who runs recycling programs for Waukesha County and belongs to a coalition that supports freecycling, believes young people will find the Internet a particularly appealing way to share their possessions.

Fiedler noted that employees at Goodwill and other non-profit agencies are welcome to shop the freecycling sites, too.

"It might be something they actually like," she said.

A couple of freecycling abuses have been identified. Illegal drug paraphernalia has turned up on some sites across the country, and donated items occasionally are snatched up for resale elsewhere by visitors exploiting the free-for-all spirit of the arrangement.

Cox said he has never seen any illegal products being offered, and he is not particularly concerned if someone accepts a donation only to sell it later.

"If people want to do that, I can't stop them," he said. "It's a free country."

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© 2004, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Journal Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services