The Buy Nothing Project

How much random stuff do you have at home? Have you ever tried selling some of it on Ebay (complicated) or Craigslist (frustrating), delivering it to Goodwill (deflating), or throwing it out (depressing)?

Have you heard of the Buy Nothing Project

It’s not a non-profit or a start-up organization. Instead, the project likes to call itself a social experiment. It originated on an island off the coast of Seattle in the Salish Sea, and has turned into a worldwide movement. Two friends, Rebecca and Liesl, created a gifting economy on Bainbridge Island, Washington in the summer of 2013. Their idea was to build trust between neighbors who want to share and ask for help – while at the same time reducing the community’s dependence on single-use materials. The project facilitates reuse of household items by neighbors who find them valuable. 

Not only does this divert waste from ending up in landfills and oceans, it also gives participants the option to ask for things they might need, instead of buying them new. According to their website, as of January 2020 the Buy Nothing Project had some 1.2 million participants in at least 25 countries. The project’s operations are led by at least 6,000 volunteers, primarily using Facebook groups.

The two co-founders have really put a lot of thought and attention into the development of group dynamics, which I find really heartening. They have made adjustments and transparently addressed negative outcomes that have come as a side effect of these neighborhood Facebook groups. Some of the challenges they’ve come up against: how the demarcation of neighborhood and town boundaries in their groups inadvertently reinforced historically socioeconomic and racial injustices; and how the use of acronyms or certain language styles by members can be inclusive or exclusive of certain life situations and people with disabilities.

The Buy Nothing Group banner.
Basic parameters with giving away, receiving, lending, and borrowing things.
  1. No money should be involved (there are mutual aid groups set up for that now if someone needs help during covid), soliciting for cash or bartering is also not allowed.  
  2. The focus of their mission is on waste reduction and neighborly goodwill, so the use of back story narratives and friendly more-than-just-transactionary language is encouraged. 
  3. There’s a Facebook group for almost every town or area of the U.S. and many more abroad as well. Depending on the population density of your area, your group might be by neighborhood, town, group of towns or district. 
  4. The movement started and took off on Facebook because it is a free platform. But they have also begun to provide an open source platform that is still developing. If your area doesn’t have a Facebook group yet, you can also start your own

The population of my neighborhood in Brooklyn is around 41,000 people, so we have our own Buy Nothing group. This seems pretty typical of large cities, most of the groups being broken down by neighborhood. I’ve become more active in this online group as I’ve brought tubs of items into my apartment from my downsized childhood home. I mostly participate to minimize items I have by finding new owners for them, gifting them to neighbors I’ve never met before.

Even during this pandemic it’s an easy excuse to connect with a new neighbor and feel more connected to my community. This is true even if it is virtually through messaging apps and contactless pickups or a few seconds of a hand-off and “hi there, thanks, you’re welcome, nice to meet you, have a great day” with masks on outside. 

This is my “look” when walking over to a neighbor’s place to drop off an item for them.

Living in a very walkable place, I also use the coordination of a drop-off or pick-up of an item with a neighbor as an excuse to go on walks or bike to a new place. I get some steps in for my weekly Garmin walk challenge with friends and get some fresh air and sunshine. It’s also a chance to keep getting to know my neighborhood by a new marker of association – “oh that’s where I dropped off my hair iron once to a lady named —.” We’ve only lived in our neighborhood for a little over a year now so I found this to be a valuable practice as I continue growing a visual map of our hood in my head.

There’s also some credit to be given to the benefits of informally meeting a new person in our daily lives, even if for just a few seconds. Jane Brody of the New York Times writes that “These ephemeral connections add variety to my life, are a source of useful information and often provide needed emotional and physical support.” Brody also mentions a quote from a professor of psychology that describes casual connection in the course of daily life as a basic human need, a feeling of belonging to a community. 

I agree and I feel it in those two seconds of handing off a bag of what was my mom’s pretty set of square Asiana plates to a nice neighbor who lives a 12 minute walk from me and whose smile I can see from behind her mask and glasses. When I first started out in this group, I was hesitant about who some of the over 2,000 people in the group were. But the more I’ve participated, the deeper my trust has become in the neighbors, even if I meet them more virtually than in person.

Acronyms Most Commonly Used in the Buy Nothing Groups:

ISO – in search of
NIL – next in line
TIA – thanks in advance
There are often uses of hyper-local acronyms for certain street names if they are long or made up of multiple words. For example “Prospect Park West” turns into “PPW” in identifying cross streets for pick-ups. 
It can be helpful to put your hand or some object in your photo for reference so a neighbor can tell how big your item is.
If furniture, you can include dimensions or a link to the commercial product that shows all specs.

I wouldn’t be Sonah without having a list of trick and tips made up from this time, so here are my eight cents:

  1. Facebook posts: Caption your ambiguous items so people know what it actually is and/or what it’s used for. You’ll come to appreciate others who do this.
  2. Coordinating 10+ giveaways of items takes a lot of effort. I’ve done it in one day and…it was crazy. I suggest doing giveaways in small batches of no more than 7 items at a time.
  3. Communication is so key, from the moment someone comments on your post saying “Interested” or “I’d love this!” to a private message from them coordinating a date/time for pick-up or drop-off. If the flow of this communication seems to have stalled or the person picking up shows a pattern of last-minute schedule changes or cancellations, move on to the next person who claimed your item. Don’t take offense since we don’t know what is ever going on in someone’s life.
  1. Wait at least 2-7 days before deciding on who gets what. Wait even longer for “big ticket items” (like a computer, a camera or nice furniture). Then you can raffle who gets it so everyone gets a chance at “winning” your item for reuse instead of the people who are often able to be online checking the group always getting first dibs.
  2. Watch out for the Chronic Claimer – a friend I made through this group expressed some concern that some folks could potentially be hoarders. There’s no way to know of course, but the point of this group is to make a variety of good connections and give or receive widely. So it’s good to keep in mind not to keep giving to just one person who seems to be repeatedly saying “me!” on every item you ever publish. 
  1. If you’re on the receiving end of the group and someone has agreed to give you something, you follow their parameters and style of communication. But you can do your part in staying responsive and timely in how you communicate.
  2. Volunteer to drop off your own items to people. Not only do you get to potentially explore a new part of your community or get some exercise if walking/running/biking, you also get the benefit of having control over your own schedule and time. And there’s a guarantee you won’t deal with a no-show.
  3. If you’re arranging a contactless pick-up with a neighbor at your home, provide an exact address and directions once a date/time is confirmed. I’d also confirm that person is coming within the hour of the appointment time.

    “Package” your item in a plastic or reusable bag to hang outside where it’s visible for your receiver to take (and hopefully reuse the bag again). I usually put someone’s first name and the time of agreed pick-up on a bag with a weatherproof post-it note (OK, I’m a little intense about my giveaways), and hang it on a fence post in front of our apartment building within 5-10 minutes of their agreed pick-up time. You might run out of plastic bags and post-it notes doing this contactless. But then you can also ask folks in your Buy Nothing Group if anyone has more! Virtuous cycle!

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