The Environment
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The Environment

Over 150,000 Used Items are Being Offered for Free in the UK

And what you need to know about it

Photo by Julien-Pier Belanger on Unsplash

It feels like a hidden secret but one of the advantages of moving towards a circular economy is people giving away items they no longer need for free.

Problem

The environmentally conscious of you will be aware that simply throwing things away without much thought results in soil, sea, and air pollution. This can be in your home country or abroad if the waste is exported.

One aspect of reducing waste is to make sure we continue to reuse things we no longer need. The most common solution is advertising your unwanted items on the second-hand market with sites like eBay reporting a total of 87 million second-hand sales in 2021, an increase of 29% compared to 2018.

While this is great news there is a hidden administrative burden for advertising your item for sale. This includes but is not limited to: a thorough description of your item, photographs accurately representing the state of your item, pay for and safely package your item, organise postage and be ready to post at a movements notice, avoid scams, accept returns and once its all over get ranked on your customer service skills. Finally give a percentage of your earnings to the site and be aware of any tax laws for your earnings.

When comparing all that against the incredibly convenient and simple concept of throwing something of little financial value into the bin you can see why 54% of household waste still gets sent to landfills or is incinerated.

For some, the solution exists in the form of donating to charity shops that are more than happy to receive certain items. This works assuming you are close to one and the item you have is something they can sell. If the item doesn’t sell it could get exported which causes havoc in the receiving country. If it's not something worth exporting then it too will just be sent to a landfill.

The chance of something selling is hindered even further by it being a brick-and-mortar store where its inventory is not advertised. This makes visiting the store an active choice with no guarantee of finding something of interest. Customers could also be reduced by their own bias towards certain charitable causes, for example, people often prefer human charities over animal ones.

Solution

The solution, it seems, needs to be as simple as being able to announce you have something you no longer need and ask who wants it. The removal of financial gain simplifies the entire interaction and makes the primary purpose of reuse. The act of offering things for free then provides an incentive for people who want your item to collect it themselves. This has the added benefit of reducing carbon emissions since only people nearby will show interest.

The good news is that there are at least seven websites dedicated to the idea of passing on your unwanted items for free. They include Freecycle, Freegle, FreelyWheely, FreeToCollect, Olio, Partage, and Trash Nothing. They all solve the same problem by making it as simple as possible for you to upload a photo, write a description, add your approximate location then wait to hear from anyone who has an interest in collecting the item from you.

There are also another seven commercial websites that have a section for people advertising free items. They include Craigslist (Free Stuff), Facebook Marketplace (Free Stuff), FreeAds (Free Stuff), Friday Ad (Free to Collect), Gumtree (Freebies), Preloved (Freeloved), and Shpock (Filter £0). While not as helpful in spreading an environmental message they at least provide the same service as the non-commercial sites.

Unfortunately, one of the main problems with commercial sites running their own free section is they get spammed by companies posting non-free items and using the popularity of the free section as free advertising. For example, a collection of 1,033 new ads on the Facebook Marketplace Free Stuff section has only 382 legitimate free items. You end up with that number once you remove items like property, vehicles and filter out ads with commercial keywords like “Buy Now” and “Cash on Delivery”.

There also seems to be a lack of consistency in naming conventions that describe the act of giving something away for free. This is most likely due to trademarks, where the term “Freecycle” is trademarked preventing people from using it. It's understandable that each site has its own branding which means you end up with terms like Freebies, Free Stuff, Offers, and Non Food Items.

Since the non-commercial websites run on donations and volunteers there is little left for marketing making it hard for people to be aware of their existence. Even the commercial websites that do have an advertising budget will instead go towards their brand as a whole rather than promoting the concept of reusing.

All these problems accumulate making it hard for people searching for free items. Just because you didn’t find what you were looking for on one website doesn’t mean it's not on another. Without large advertising budgets and everyone calling the same thing different names it then becomes a chore to find alternative sites.

Improvement

To try and solve this issue we created Freeused.co.uk so that all the ads for free used items across the fourteen websites are normalized and filtered into one simple search. As of writing, there are currently 153,248 advertisements all across the UK that can be searched from one place. The heat map below provides a visual representation of that.

Heat map of the UK with all the locations of items being offered for free.

The hope is that by consolidating all the ads together there is a higher chance of an item being offered to someone and not sent to landfills. This in turn promotes the use of reuse sites so more people will be introduced to the concept of reusing. People can then make use of those services if they ever decided to offer their own items for free when they are no longer needed.

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