When I put a Free Stuff box in the laundry room of my apartment building on the Upper East Side of New York City, I wasn’t thinking about the larger idea of holding a live swap event with the neighbors, and what that could mean for us as a community. I was simply focused on how much waste we could reduce by swapping gently used articles, silently, anonymously via a 3′ x 2′ x 2′ box. Perfectly decent stuff would be intercepted before it hit the trash. Neighbors and their housekeepers and building staff could avail themselves of free stuff — after all, who doesn’t like free stuff? And I would feel good that I made it all happen. Then a light bulb went off in my head…
Swapping Provides Other Sustainability Benefits Besides Cutting Down on Waste
Although it certainly helps my neighbors and I keep stuff out of landfills, a Free Stuff box can provide other sustainability benefits as well: helping folks to save money and enhance economic resilience. Turn it into a live swap event, and all kinds of social benefits kick in.
GrowNYC’s Stop ‘N’ Swap® Is Making a Difference All Over New York City
Some of this is already happening in spades at the free Stop ‘N’ Swap® community reuse events being run in all five boroughs of NYC. However, it’s exciting to think of what more good these events can do in the interest of promoting sustainability, especially in underserved neighborhoods.
Stop ‘N’ Swap represent a Zero Waste program of GrowNYC, a not for profit funded by the NYC Department of Sanitation. Started in 2011, they have been so successful, 45 events are planned for this year, with more slated for next. Happily, many of these events already occur in NYC-based housing projects.
For 2.5 hours neighbors pile in with their overstuffed shopping bags while other neighbors happily stream out laden down with newly found treasures — there’s no limit to how much you can take and it’s all for free.
The folks who run the Stop ‘N’ Swap greet, weigh, sort, hang, display and eventually help pack all the items carefully laid out on tables marked ‘Men’s Clothes’ ‘Women’s Clothes’ ‘Toys’ ‘Books’ ‘Media’ ‘and even ‘WildCard’.
The Magic of GrowNYC’s Stop ‘N’ Swap
I visited my first Stop ‘N’ Swap on a Saturday this past March. It was held in the cafeteria of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a not-for-profit located in one of largest underserved areas of the country. While there, I was welcomed by Kathleen Crosby and Victoria Dearborn, who manage Stop ‘N’ Swap events along with a small army of 15 volunteers. The event was well-promoted to community members, many of whom seem to have come before. Women (mostly) arrived with bags full of clothing, shoes, knick-knacks, toys, DVDs and CDs, books, and other items.
Everything flew off the tables as soon as they were restocked. Some items still had tags on them, like the little pink knitted ‘pussy-type’ hat I picked up for my granddaughter. One middle-aged woman excitedly snatched up a brass menorah — she claimed it was her first. Another swapper found several items she intended to pass along as gifts to neighbors and godchildren.
What Might the Future Hold for Community Swaps?
Amidst all the swapping and smiles I couldn’t help but wonder about the many ways that a community-based swap event like this one, with a little tweaking, could do even more to promote sustainability and so very cost-efficiently.
Is it possible that even more swap events could be run in low income neighborhoods where they are so sorely needed?
What about focusing events on single items, like children’s clothes and toys, kitchen items, or possibly just food, making it that much easier for folks like busy moms to find stuff of value?
Swapping Skills and Expertise, Not Just Stuff
And while we’re thinking big, why not include ‘skill swap’ tables where folks could teach each other their knitting, cooking, sewing, fixing, DIYing, painting and other skills that could empower folks to be more independent and economically resilient? (Stop ‘N’ Swaps meet Repair Cafes, anyone?)
Teaching each other to repair stuff also promotes social connections that build a community. Serving refreshments help builds community, too.
Sharing Best Swapping Practices
I was delighted to learn from Kathleen and Victoria that they and others at GrowNYC are being asked to share their best practices with individuals, schools and community organizations looking to host their own swap events. When more neighborhoods set up community swap events of their own, look for a flood of creative ideas as they customize their events to local needs, excess items, and culture!
The Simple Idea Behind Community Based Swap Events Gives Me Hope for a More Sustainable Future
Mountains of gently used items seem to exist everywhere these days. With a little luck, swapping stuff — and sharing skills, and stories over a cup of coffee — could one day replace shopping as a national pastime. And to think that is can all start in a humble cafeteria like the Stop ‘N’ Swap I attended, or be sparked by a Free Stuff box located in a laundry room, foyer, or other well-trafficked space.
Want to grab some quick tips on how to host a successful swap event in your community? Live in or near NYC and want to attend a GrowNYC Stop ‘N’ Swap event? Click here for a calendar of upcoming events and contact information.
What are you already swapping among friends and neighbors where you live? Take our poll.
Posting Guidelines – This and other stories published on WeHateToWaste.com are intended to prompt conversation about practical solutions for preventing waste and changing consumption culture. Opinions expressed are solely those of the contributors. WeHateToWaste implies no endorsement of the products or organizations mentioned.