Cast-offs find new homes with Buy Nothing

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Charlotte Gordon

A map is split into colored regions to represent the multitude of Buy Nothing communities within the Bay Area.

During the pandemic, many people forged connections with neighbors through the world of Buy Nothing.

Buy Nothing is an international free item exchange group that is primarily conducted over Facebook. Buy Nothing has groups in thousands of neighborhoods around the world and is run by local volunteer administrators. 

The primary purposes of Buy Nothing are to keep items out of landfills and create community. While many items could plausibly be donated or resold in a thrift store, Buy Nothing community members often prefer to participate in the gifting economy. Additionally, hard-to-place items that might not easily be donated to traditional thrift stores may find new homes within Buy Nothing’s community. 

“I really think that Buy Nothing is great with recycling … even obscure things,” said Naomi Paschen, an administrator of the Belmont Buy Nothing group. 

Paschen cited “corks, styrofoam boxes, unused diapers, and even ovulation kits” as some of the many odd items she’s seen on Buy Nothing. Buy Nothing can also feature unusual items such as half-eaten birthday cakes, out of bloom orchids, barely-used toiletries, moving boxes, pet supplies, and potting soil.

As a mother of three, Paschen gets the majority of their clothing and toys from Buy Nothing. 

“I’m obsessed with Buy Nothing. I think it’s an amazing group. I’m all for Buy Nothing,” Paschen said.

I’m obsessed with Buy Nothing, I think it’s an amazing group. I’m all for Buy Nothing.”

— Naomi Paschen, an administrator of the Belmont Buy Nothing group

In addition, people sometimes make requests for specific items. These are often referred to as “polite asks.” People often ask for specific items or small quantities of bulk items, including home-repair supplies and craft supplies.

“You could say, ‘My niece is having a birthday; does anybody have anything from 18 months to 24 months that they could gift?'” Paschen said. “People are very helpful and resourceful, and they’re really just kind.”

The Belmont group has approximately 1,100 members. One member is Monica Schreiber, a Carlmont parent and avid user of Buy Nothing. She is fond of the waste reduction aspect of Buy Nothing. She reports people sometimes recycle items like party decorations that are typically only used once.

“Someone will ask, ‘Does anybody else have a child who’s having their fifth birthday?’ Another member will speak up, and it’ll [often] go through two or three or four families before it finally gets ruined and thrown away, and that’s very gratifying to see,” Schreiber said.

Schreiber also enjoys the opportunity to see new parts of Belmont.

“It’s a nice way to get out into the community and see areas that you otherwise wouldn’t see even in your own little town,” Schreiber said. “It gets people out and about into corners of their community that they might not otherwise visit.”

In neighboring San Mateo, Debi Rose is one of the administrators of the southwest group, with approximately 1,200 members. Rose thinks the items are secondary to the relationships that are formed.

“Building community is the number one goal, and the stuff is just gravy,” Rose said.

Rose has also developed friendships with people she’s met through Buy Nothing.

“We’ve hit it off and then gotten together for coffee or lunch,” Rose said.

Charlotte Gordon

The San Mateo group emphasizes waiting a day before selecting the recipient of a gift. This is referred to as simmering.

“Simmering is important because not everyone is online all the time, so we try to discourage people from what we call flash giving, which is first-come, first-serve,” Rose said. “We ask that people let their posts simmer for at least 24 hours, so people that log on periodically have an equal chance of getting the items.”

While members frequently use random number generators to choose a new home for their gift, Rose encourages people to give creatively. 

“An example of this was I listed a pot, and there was a lot of interest, so I asked people to tell me what they would cook in the pot or share their favorite recipe. I picked my favorite dish, and that’s who I gave it to,” Rose said. “We also encourage people to gift to people they’ve never gifted to before or to someone whose joke makes you laugh.” 

Because of Buy Nothing’s strict money-free policy, a separate sister group called Being Neighborly hosts discussions involving businesses, services, and community events. 

“Being Neighborly is for all the other things that people use to build community,” Rose said. “For example, if someone is looking for a pet sitter who they want to pay or a housekeeper, you can’t post that to Buy Nothing.” 

Overall, whether in Belmont, San Mateo, or anywhere else in the world, the Buy Nothing exchange group has formed a unique community online. Designed to recycle and circulate used items, Buy Nothing is a place for members to share anything, no matter how obscure. 

“We’ve gotten really close. It’s a very tight-knit community and we want to keep it like that,” Paschen said.