- Bywater resident Elizabeth Underwood leaves her unwanted goods on a table for passersby to take home.
Freecycling. Urban foraging. Freeganism. Dumpster diving. Scavenging. If the ever-increasing number of synonyms for a simple activity (retrieving and reusing items someone else has tossed out) is any indication, the trend is gaining traction.
"I have never lived in a city with such good trash," says Bywater resident Elizabeth Underwood, who directs the annual sustainable fashion show Worn Again NOLA. "Once I started looking at trash bins as a potential resource, I started seeing material everywhere. Just open your eyes and you'll be amazed at what you find out there."
Many websites exist to facilitate the free exchange of goods. The Freecycle Network (www.freecycle.org) has a chapter in New Orleans, and Craigslist.org features an entire section devoted to free stuff. Among the postings: A vegetarian who wants to get rid of MREs containing beef entrees and a retired stripper who no longer needs 40-plus bikini outfits.
"All the reasons for people throwing things away aren't necessarily because things aren't good or useful," says Andrea Duhe, a resident of the St. Roch neighborhood who estimates she's been scavenging clothes and furniture for more than a decade. "A lot of times, people just don't have a place for it in their lives anymore."
Though Duhe peruses Craigslist listings every few days, a good find can be as close as a neighbor's curb. "I would say 80 percent of my furniture came from the side of the road — all my chairs, my bed, my bathroom and kitchen shelves," says Marigny resident Jane Stubbs, who breathes new life into her finds by reupholstering, sanding, painting or decoupaging them. "And when I want to get rid of stuff, I put it outside because I know someone will take it."
Underwood, too, sets no-longer-needed books, craft items, CDs, magazines and kitchen utensils outside her corner apartment on a table she's designated for that purpose. "I am trying to lighten my load, but I don't want to fill a landfill," she says. "Pedestrians see the stuff and take it. Friendships have grown out of people taking things off the table."
In addition to fostering a sense of community, the act of sharing unwanted goods has special resonance with some residents. "Being New Orleanians, we remember the big piles of garbage on West End Boulevard (following Hurricane Katrina)," says Victor Pizarro, director of Plan B, the New Orleans Community Bike Project, a nonprofit organization that recycles and rebuilds bikes from scrap parts. "The waste of industrialized nations is something (Plan B) has always been concerned with."
Freecyclers can score some great finds while supporting an ethos of social responsibility. Underwood hits up the Tulane and Loyola University campuses during finals week in mid-May, when students vacate their dorms and apartments. Many students throw out furniture and computers rather than deal with the hassle of storing it, Underwood says. "After the semester ends, the dumpsters are full of really fantastic stuff, including books, dishes, furniture and bikes." She'll also study trash collection schedules and cruise through neighborhoods the day before pickups are scheduled. "I've gotten some really great stuff Uptown," she says.
There's one caveat to freecycling: "You have to struggle not to become a pack rat," Pizarro says. "People are programmed to be consumers, so our battles are consumption impulses — people are like, 'Oh, that's free. I'll take it.' Realize the intrinsic worth of things, and (consider) whether you will use them or not."
Once people master that lesson, scavenging becomes an act of joy and abundance, like a treasure hunt, Underwood says. "I can find what I need by looking for it," she says. "I can decorate my house with anything. I can make art out of anything. The world is my oyster."