I’ve always had both an aversion to waste and a strong need to purge my home of stuff I don’t need. Call it nature or nurture (it’s probably both; hi, Mum!), I like to organize things. I’ve also been deeply bothered by the distribution of stuff in our world: those things I have that I know someone else could make much better use of, or those things I need that I know a hundred neighbours have stashed in their kitchen junk drawers. And then there’s the fact that our planet is almost literally drowning in the ocean of superfluous objects we throw out every day (and smothering in the emissions used to make and ship them).
There has to be a way to solve all of this, right? Enter the Buy Nothing Project, a global network that includes more than 4 million people in 44 countries. The project is based on the idea of a gift economy, which means no money is ever exchanged—and no trades are ever required. All items shared must be given away for free, and members are encouraged to ask for things they need and to share gratitude posts that highlight gifts’ new homes and purposes.
Until recently, sharing has all been done via Facebook groups oriented around neighbourhoods, though that’s starting to shift thanks to a new app. (While the app is so far only for iPhone and Android users, there’s a web version in the works to include those without smartphones.) To get started, you can either download the app and follow the instructions there, or search for a Facebook group in your area to join. Either way, you’ll be shown guidelines to follow to help you get a feel for the community.
I found out about the Project in early 2020 via an eco-friendly living newsletter I subscribe to—I can’t even remember which one—and quickly signed up to my west-end Toronto group via Facebook. My participation started with tea—specifically, a gift box of flavoured varieties I’d acquired in a Secret Santa that just wasn’t, well, my cup of tea. In the first month of lockdown, I had no way to drop it off for the food bank, so I offered it up to my local group and arranged a drop-off the next day (that also got me out of the house for a walk).
After the tea, I tackled various odds and ends in my get-rid-of drawer: a wishful-thinking Lululemon dress that had never quite fit me, a bottle of extra-hot hot sauce my grocery delivery had subbed for the regular kind, an external hard drive that was gathering dust. And I acquired things, too: an owl-adorned Royal Worcester tray that matched one of my favourite mugs, and some of one woman’s saved dill seeds to plant in my garden for the black swallowtail butterflies to lay eggs on.
That said, decluttering and avoiding buying new things, while awesome, are not the main point. The Buy Nothing Project has a bigger purpose: strengthening community. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned from running a few thousand local gift economies, it’s that giving is an action that brings people an immediate giddy joy, and joy is a solid foundation for building strong relationships,” write Buy Nothing Project founders Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller (based in Washington state) in their book The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan: Discover the Joy of Spending Less, Sharing More, and Living Generously. “Through the simple act of offering up something you no longer need, you’ll both help the environment and improve your social standing.”
“It’s not about just stuff,” says Leslie Daigle, an admin of and active participant in the Buy Nothing group on Facebook in Esquimalt, B.C. “Getting away from that buying culture is why Buy Nothing is so successful. It’s keeping that community connection while meeting each other’s needs.” Some of the items Daigle has given and received include: a baby gate, a lightweight stroller (received and later regifted), toothbrushes and socks for a charity project, Rice Krispie squares, and a faux-leather journal-style notebook. She points out that due to the Project’s community-driven mandate, the recipient is “gifter’s choice”— i.e., it’s not simply first come, first served, though some choose to do things that way. Other methods might be a random draw or a fun challenge, like telling a story or a joke. That notebook? Daigle’s husband requested a haiku from potential recipients, “and we gifted it that way.”
This fall, having left my only half-teaspoon measure behind in a vacation rental in Nova Scotia, I posted a call-out to my group. One woman who lives about a 10-minute walk from me (the same who had picked up my hard drive) answered: she had a measuring spoon to spare. Crisis averted, and my morning matcha lattes were saved—no emergency online shopping required.
“Being in a big city, it’s nice to know people actually care,” says Skye Eun-Hye, an active member of my Toronto group. (We first met, at least virtually, when she picked up some smartphone photography accessories I was giving away.) Eun-Hye also joined during the pandemic, and has found the group a useful and fun addition to her already “freegan” lifestyle. She’s received gifts as varied as a food processor, a handmade drum, and crutches and a tensor bandage for when she sprained her foot, and laughs remembering being in her yard after dark one night with a flashlight to dig up plants for a schoolteacher who’d requested some to spruce up the school’s garden. “It’s great,” she says. “There’s a big community of people wanting to get rid of stuff, but also help each other.”
The community part of things has been harder because of the pandemic—I get a little jealous reading some of Clark and Rockefeller’s stories of pre-COVID Buy Nothing get-togethers, and Eun-Hye and I got distracted on our call imagining an in-person “free market” we can organize one day—but we’re doing our best. In need of new pants for the winter and with some perfectly good pairs to give away, I decided to take the lead on a virtual pants swap, inspired by how hermit crabs trade up for bigger shells. There’s now a stack of pants in my mudroom that I need to look through before passing the travelling pants box on to the next person. One member, bless her, included a sheet of hermit crab jokes with her trousers drop-off. Will I discover my perfect pants in the pile? That’s TBD. But honestly, even if I don’t? I think I’ve found something better.