How to furnish a flat for free

With mountains of discarded stuff heading for landfill, why add to the waste by buying new gear? Cash-strapped Hugh Reilly set out to furnish his flat - for nothing - with other people's cast-offs
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The Independent Online

After moving into a bare flat in Spitalfields, east London, I was presented with a furniture dilemma. Like most postgraduate students, I survive on limited means, so the prospect of forking out for overpriced furnishings and domestic appliances filled me and my bank balance with dread.

Then a friend told me about Freecycling. "People just give away household stuff they no longer use or want rid of," he said, "and most of it's perfectly good stuff." It seemed too good to be true. I looked into it and was surprised by what was on offer. Sofas, fridges, cookers, beds, TVs, CDs, books, even motor vehicles - you name it, if someone wants to get rid of it, someone else will pick it up."

Freecycle began in 2003 in Tucson, Arizona, with the aim of reducing the amount of waste and preventing the desert landscape being taken over by landfills. Since then, Freecycle has snowballed. There are now more than two million Freecycle members in 3,500 Freecycle communities worldwide.

It makes sense, after all.The environmental charity Furniture Re-use Network (www.frn.org.uk) estimates that 15 million items of furniture in the UK are thrown out each year, and the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER) has calculated that three million fridges, four million TVs and monitors, and 10 million other large domestic appliances such as washing machines, cookers and tumble-dryers are chucked in landfills every year.

The beauty of Freecycling, for those with goods to unload, is that it's one of the few ethical living activities that can often be the easier option. Instead of organising a skip through your local council, if you Freecycle something it could be picked up later that day.

A break in my course meant I had a two-week window in which to furnish my flat through Freecycle.

WEEK 1

On Monday I sign up to the London Freecycle Yahoo group at 9am. I get three "welcome" e-mails full of positive messages, such as: "Free your inner pack rat!" I'm in this for a couch, a desk for my flatmate Alice, a sofa bed for guests, a toaster, a TV and anything else that sounds interesting. By lunchtime I've already received 200 new Freecycle messages. Yikes!

You need to have your finger on the reply button 24/7 in this game. After missing out on several perfectly good sofas on Tuesday, I try to convince friends to sign up to Freecycle, so that my chances will be increased. They are not obliging.

Unusual e-mail posts on Wednesday include: Offered: lesbian-interest fiction paperbacks, N14; Offered: hamster, E2 (found it, not sure what to do with it); Wanted: Volvo manual, SE14 (does anyone have a Haynes manual for the Volvo 480 they no longer use?).

A friend tells me that it is Freecycle etiquette to post an "offer" on Freecycle before you start claiming stuff. I try to convince myself that I don't have anything that is worth Freecycling but maybe I could offer my untouched fondue set?

Success at last on Thursday: a long sofa bed from Bob, in Carshalton, Surrey. It's a Greaves design "classic" from the 1960s, he says, but it looks suspiciously like an orthopaedic bed. Freecycle beggars can't be choosers, though. I e-mail friends to request help ferrying furniture. Good news: several are willing to help. Bad news: they all drive hatchbacks. I inform Bob I have no means of collecting his long sofa bed.

I receive yet more intriguing posts on Friday. Taken: very big cheese plant, W4; Offered: two bottles of soda stream, NW10 (ideal for your G+Ts or V+Ts); Offered: No Parking road sign, SE16. Amid the dross I manage to spot another sofa, and I'm the first to reply. It's an old Ikea model but unlike Bob's, this sofa is a modest two-seater. I arrange to pick it up from Phil, in Enfield, on Sunday with the help of a friend of a friend, Nick, who drives a small van. At Phil's we find that the van boot won't shut with the sofa inside and we don't have any rope to tie it down. Phil agrees to leave the sofa in his garage and let us collect it at a later date.

The next day I experience my first "Freecycle rage". Phil, perfectly agreeable on Saturday, shouts down the phone: "You've really left me in shit!" - all because I can't organise a lift for Sunday. I must pick the sofa up by Monday at the latest.

A week has passed and I've got zilch. Maybe I'm cursed for failing to offer anything. Now where did I put that fondue set?

WEEK 2

I get off to a more promising start on Monday after putting up my first "wanted" post, for a toaster. Peggy replies to say she has a "perfectly serviceable bread-heating unit" and can meet me in Farringdon, Thursday.

On Monday evening I take the train back to Enfield where I meet Nick the driver to pick up Phil's sofa. I sit contentedly on my first successful Freecycle, even though it means I can hardly move around the room.

Freecycling is beginning to take over my life. I'm finding it difficult to go without checking my e-mails every 10 minutes. I have the Freecycle buzz: I'm hooked. I start agreeing to items I don't really need, such as a heart-shaped, red lamp, which I pick up from a friendly couple near Borough.

On Wednesday, I'm the first to respond to two offers of TVs, from Dave, in Ravenscourt Park, and Julie, in Walthamstow. I decide to pick up both of them - I can always Freecycle the lesser model. Postings on Thursday include: Wanted: crescent-moon-shaped meditation pillow, N16; Offered: musical limbo-dancing kit, N5.

At lunchtime on Thursday, I meet Peggy at Farringdon tube. Turns out she's Freecycling the contents of her recently deceased grandmother's house. It's an impressive toaster - it even has a bagel function.

That evening, my friend Dan drives me to Ravenscourt Park where I pick up the first TV from Dave. It's old and small but in good condition. I then jump on the tube to Finsbury Park where another helpful friend, Leah, drives me to Julie's, in Walthamstow. Julie's TV is even older and needs to be tuned in each time it's turned on but it looks great in my lounge.

On Friday, I gain my last big ask: a sofa bed. Miracles are possible. I'm picking it up next week from Rita, in Whetstone, with help from my friend Jo.

As usual, there's a flurry of Freecycle postings at the weekend. Highlights include: Wanted: singing hamsters (you'll know what I mean if you have one); Offered: Stannah curved stairlift; Wanted: car, London.

A girl called Tanya puts up a "wanted" post for an old book on disco music that I have. I meet Tanya, who works at an organic fruit stall, in Spitalfields market, on Sunday. She shrieks with joy at the sight of the book and I realise that I have now experienced Freecycling from the other side of the fence and feel truly fulfilled.

Freecycling: the dos and don'ts

Freecycle is run through Yahoo group e-mail lists. You sign up to your local Freecycle e-mail group to receive e-mails from those who want to get rid of household items in your area. For example, London's Freecycle group has 27,000 members; Manchester has 4,577; Belfast 870; Wrexham 458; and Arbroath 88. New groups are sprouting up all the time. There are also rival sites such as Give or Take (giveortake.org) based in east London and Gumtree website's (gumtree.com) busy "freebies" section.

DO

* Offer to give away an unwanted item to the Freecycle group before you start attempting to claim anything. No offer is too small.

* Be punctual when arranging to pick up an item you've obtained through the Freecycle group. If someone is giving you something for free, the least you can do is turn up on time.

* It is a very good idea to create a separate e-mail account specially for Freecycle group e-mails. Those signed up to the London Freecycle group can expect to receive several hundred e-mails every day.

DON'T

* Sell items you've obtained. Those found to be using the service for commercial gain will be thrown out of the Freecycle group.

* Offer to buy any items put up on the Freecycle group. Freecycle is for free items only.

* Attempt to Freecycle alcohol, tobacco, drugs, firearms, weapons or live animals. Anything illegal or not appropriate for all ages is forbidden on Freecycle. As is Freecycling yourself or your children.

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