Go on, be honest. That skip outside your neighbours' house, you couldn't resist a peek, could you? An illicit rifle, just to check they weren't getting rid of anything good? And why not? You checked no one was looking and, besides, the contents were earmarked "destination dump".
Well, from this autumn you will be able to indulge your inner forager without the ignominy of being spotted from behind the net curtains. You won't even have to step outside your house. The secret to surreptitious scavenging is a new website called Myskip.com that has big plans to be the eBay of the hipper-than-hip recycling community when it launches in a few weeks' time.
It plans to connect like-minded scrap seekers via a new green network of virtual skips that has already won plaudits from such diverse personalities as Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, and Shilpa Shetty, the Celebrity Big Brother winner. Its appeal, if its trio of co-founders are to be believed, circumnavigates the globe from President Clinton's office to the China.
Julian Defries, one of the three people behind Myskip, says he dreamt up the concept after spotting a passer-by raiding a skip outside someone's house. "I thought, 'Couldn't we do this virtually?' I had decided on the name by the time I'd driven home." More than £100,000 later, the final tweaks are being made to Myskip.com, which should be good to go by the end of this month. Initially the site will only be open to people looking to get rid of – or get hold of – junk in London, but that will change as it builds a national presence.
Myskip hopes to have 10,000 items for people to rummage through at any one time. So far, more than 4,000 people have signalled their interest in using the site to de-clutter their lives. Marks and Spencer is among the companies that has said it intends to recommend Myskip to its staff, while Bang & Olufsen, the Danish purveyor of high-end audio products, said it would push the site's merits to its customers. "Our clients often ask what to do with their old B&O's, now we can recommend Myskip.com," said Douglas Bell, the Danish company's head of products.
David Bellamy, the naturalist, is another fan. "It prolongs the active life of a whole lot of things and keeps them out of the skip for a long time, which makes evident sense to me."
UK households certainly have plenty of junk lying around. Figures from YouGov, the Government's online information portal, show that the typical home has £460 worth of forgotten products buried in a loft or the garage – a nationwide total of £9bn. And of Britain's 20 million homes, 47 per cent have lofts stuffed with children's clothes and toys, 46 per cent are full of old books and magazines, 40 per cent have electrical goods that their owners intend to get rid of, and 28 per cent contain unwanted records or photographs.
If the idea of using the internet as a forum to swap unwanted goods sounds like a top idea, then that's probably because it is. And it's one that other eco-minded entrepreneurs have already had. Take Deron Beal, who founded freecycle.org in 2003. The daddy of recycling sites, Freecycle boasts 3.6 million members. They are mostly in the US, where the organisation began, but the site also has spin-offs in the UK, Germany and France.
Another is vskips.co.uk, which sounds so similar to Myskip.com that a row has broken out between the guys behind the two sites. Danny, who launched vskip in April, reckons Myskip is "sooooo similar to vskips.co.uk, it's quite unbelievable". He rants about the similarity on Myskip's message board, which he uses somewhat cheekily to flag up that he's bought the myskips.com domain, just one letter removed from his rival's. Click on it and you'll be directed straight to Vskips.
So if Vskips and Freecycle already exist, why bother with Myskip.com? Especially considering that three months after a high-profile launch in the glitzy London offices of Bloomberg, the financial information provider, the site is still not yet operational. Because, promises Myskip's Gary Cope, using the site is going to be simplicity itself. And this means its users won't simply be one-time wonders, but will come back again and again. "If you can give people a network that complements their lifestyle, they'll use it. Our site is based on people's needs, which means ease of use," he says. In a nutshell, this means it will be easy for people to upload their items of junk on to the site and easy for other people to get them off again. The secret weapon in Myskip's arsenal is the mobile phone. "For the price of a text message, which will be minimal, people can upload a picture of their item, which they have snapped with their phone. It will be instant and will work on a first-come, first-served basis," Cope says.
Where Myskip will differ most markedly from Freecycle is that, to borrow an old idiom, it intends to make money from all the old rope hiding in its virtual rubbish dump. This, Cope reckons, will help it to run a superior site to Freecycle, which he derides as "clunky" to use. (Although Freecycle has many fans, not least my boss, I for one have never got on with it. I have yet to master even signing up to my local Tower Hamlets group, failing on a number of occasions to get the Yahoo! software that it relies on to acknowledge my log-on. Hence, our old big-box TV is still taking up valuable space in our spare room. For what it's worth, Freecycle's Beal recently stated that the group's philosophy was "to let go of ownership" and not to make a quick buck.)
Cope and his Myskip pals are defensive about their money-making scheme but claim that ultimately it is for the good of the planet. "Our number one goal is to reduce landfill and to get people to reuse, rather than recycle. It is abhorrent to put waste into the earth and pollute it, plus we're going to run out of room," he says. He wants to use the funds to spread the Myskip vision around the world and has big plans to follow London's launch with ones in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Berlin, Sydney and even Beijing are also on the cards, or so says Cope.
The good news for recyclers is that using Myskip will be free, barring the cost of a text message if you snap your unwanted junk with your camera-phone. It will be completely free if you upload a picture using your digital camera and computer. How they intend to make money will be via banner advertising down the side of the website, much like Google, and by sponsored links to companies selling the goods you've been unable to find for free if you're desperate to get your hands on something. Avid scrap-hunters can pay for a text message alert if there is something they are particularly anxious to find.
The other criticism that Cope is keen to dispel is that sites like Myskip deprive charity shops of much-needed donations. Especially quality donations. But he has an answer for that, too. People putting an item up for grabs can opt for its details to be first e-mailed to every charity shop in their town. If, after 48 hours, none fancies that particular cast-off, then it's open season for Myskip's members.
Lekha Klouda, executive director of the Association of Charity Shops, thinks that as a nation we are amassing so much junk that there is plenty to go round. "Our research shows that 80 per cent of the population donate regularly to charity shops." And Neville Wood, head of retail at Cancer Research, says the charity is "very wary" of phenomena like Myskip. "EBay was a prime example of something like that which has hit the sector." But even he is not too worried. "We're keeping an eye on things. But there's just so much clothing out there in people's wardrobes that there is probably more than enough to go round."
Whether Myskip does end up threatening charity shops, or even Freecycle, will depend on whether that glitzy launch earlier this summer amounts to more than a hill of beans. All those celebrities who have signalled their interest, including rock stars from opposite ends of the pop spectrum, Jon Bon Jovi and Natalie Imbruglia, must now come up with the goods. Otherwise I'll just have to work out a way to fathom how to crack that Freecycle log-on.
Where to swap the junk you don't need – for the things you do
By Pyrrha Monk
The ethos of myskip.com is "use it... re-use it", which it plans to promote through encouraging members to create a virtual skip in which they can recycle unwanted items, rather than a physical one in which to waste them. Its emphasis is on ease of use. The online skip acts as a profile on which a member can advertise their unwanted objects. Launching this autumn, it is already promoting recycling through its own MySkip TV channel.
Another commercial site, which claims to be the "original virtual skip site", Vskips persuades members to create an online skip in order to reduce the number of objects going needlessly to landfill sites. Your skip acts as a profile from which you can declare unwanted items. It is also possible to rummage in other skips, and "dive" for desired objects, contacting other members via e-mail to arrange collection. There is even advice on what to write in your message.
Since starting in May 2003, freecycle.org has amassed close to four million members around the world. Idealistic rather than commercial, the site describes itself as a "free cycle of giving", concentrating on free-cycling (giving your unwanted objects to people who want them) within a local community, of which there are 4,160 worldwide. However, the snag of finding a group in your area to join does make the site more complicated, and restrictive, to use. A further deterrent, for those in a hurry to get a sofa, is that members must put something up for offer before they can get anything for free.
Swapxchange.org is a site dedicated to the exchange of products, ideas and services. The intended result is to reduce landfill, but this site is not obsessive about impact on the environment, wishing instead to "help you find the stuff that was meant for you". The "ads"-based site leaves arrangements of swapping to the members, and acts as a means to advertise unwanted items, or even wanted ones, but leaving all details of collection to the swappers.