One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

This is the mantra that led to the birth of freecycling - the act of giving away unwanted items at no cost. Just say the word FREE and the crowds will follow. Freecycling is a great way to reduce environmental impact through the diversion of waste that otherwise could have ended up incinerated or in a landfill, and it also results in decreased demands on new manufacturing processes.

A hidden opportunity

In the Longwood world of pipettes, fume hoods, and agar gels, one Harvard Medical School (HMS) human resources staff member, Gilmore Tamny, recognized an often-overlooked yet essential component required to make the medical world turn: office supplies. In fact, 15.9% of HMS’ solid waste this past year was mixed paper and cardboard, which equates to 335 tons of waste. Tamny teamed up with the Office for Sustainability (OFS) in order to simultaneously provide HMS community members with office supplies while also decreasing the amount of trash thrown away at the school. Consequently, on Earth Day 2008, the first Freecycle Day began at HMS. The effort was headed by Tamny in conjunction with the Office for Sustainability. Restaurant Associates donated cookies and drinks, another effective ploy to lure the crowds toward the massive piles of goodies. The event was held in HMS’ Courtyard Café, and OFS staff handed out Green Office starter kits during the event to get departments thinking about their overall environmental impact. The kits suggest that, by doing simple things such as enabling sleep mode on computers and purchasing at least 30% recycled paper, an office can decrease its environmental footprint.

HMS makes it a regular thing

The event was such a success that HMS decided to make freecycling a semi-annual event at the school! As a result, the 2008 semi-annual freecycling event was held on September 10th in the Courtyard Café. This second event was expanded in order to include book and reusable mug donations. A huge number of reusable items were kept out of landfills thanks to this event, including the following: 312 books, 88 mugs, 67 desktop organizers, 28 printer cartridges, 15 copier toner cartridges, over 5 full boxes of file folders, as well as countless miscellaneous office supplies. In total, over 1000 items were inventoried and freecycled. Any leftover items were donated to a local non-profit called “Extras for Creative Learning (E.x.C.L.)”, which provides supplies for local Boston schools. The event’s success was in large part due to the continued efforts of Gilmore Tamny, as well as Danielle Bova, Coordinator for Campus Operations, and dedicated staff volunteers from the HMS community.

A few questions for Gilmore Tamny, our resident freecycling guru and innovator:

Claire:

So Gilmore, how did you come up with the idea of hosting a freecycling event at HMS?

Gilmore:

Our office was moving and the sheer amount and variety of office detritus - binders, file folders, lamps, vases, electric menorahs - was staggering. And I don't think we were in any way unusual! Some flotsam-jetsam accumulation is inevitable in offices. So we put out a table with "FREE" on it, in the hallway outside our office, and I'd say a good 60% disappeared. It got me to thinking of all the offices and closets in HMS with piles of stuff - some of it useful, some of it decidedly not. It's a form of yenta-ing really: the right object finding the right home. Her trash, his treasure. Their useless crap, someone else's object d'art. It's very true.

Claire:

What was your biggest challenge in organizing the freecycling events?

Gilmore:

Convincing people to do it, although I think the time for freecycling has come. Trying to imagine the potential mishaps and disasters and circumvent them would be another challenge.

Claire:

What were the biggest differences between the first and second freecycling events?

Gilmore:

I think we learned a lot from the first and streamlined the whole thing. It renewed my faith in the power of good promotion coupled with a good idea - as long as vigorous (and probably pessimistic-minded) organization is involved. Most of the stuff was gone within the first half hour! It was pretty incredible. Maybe a little scary.

Claire:

What is your vision for freecycling at HMS in the future?

Gilmore:

I would love, love, love for there to be a freecycling room at HMS where people can drop off anything that still has usable value but is no longer needed - at any time, not just twice a year!