If the curious were to seek a definition or description on the Internet for free boxing, they might run into offers of actual free cardboard boxes for shipping.
But free boxing is not a thing — it is a movement of like-minded people committed to giving away items, from the expensive to the seemingly mundane, for reuse. Free Box participants believe it is better to put things no longer used in one household into the hands of others who need them, rather than allow them to go into landfills.
Free boxing is usually not a random act. Instead, supporters of this movement coalesce into hyperlocal, interactive communities so their donation goes to a neighbor they know, or connect with for the first time in their gifting circle. Beverly Free Box (BFB) is one such circle.
Every neighborhood needs a Free Box. It reduces landfill waste, helps spread wealth around, and minimizes hoarding and clutter. It also serves as a platform for connection among neighbors. — Sussan Navabi, a long-time Beverly Free Box participant
“Free boxing is not the kind of donating where you give to a group and then faceless people may later buy or receive your donation,” said Frau Rau, founder and administrator for BFB.
Rau started BFB in April 2018, not long after moving to Beverly, a Chicago south side neighborhood known for its suburban, or village, appeal and where over 83 percent of its 19,791 residents are homeowners.
Since graduating from college, Rau had noticed the abundance of still-useful things thrown out as garbage. Some of those things may not have met a certain standard, or were no longer useful to the owner. Other articles may have sat in homes as clutter for numerous reasons. Frau said, “These are the things that sit in people’s homes or end up in landfills when they could be reused repeatedly.”
Years earlier, while living in Irving Park, a Chicago north side neighborhood, Rau joined a group of moms who operated a local Free Box online to pass on children’s clothing and toys between themselves. Rau wanted to continue this movement in her new neighborhood when she moved to Beverly. “I began researching to see if there was free boxing in the area. When I didn’t discover any, I began mocking up a Facebook page for a community Free Box,” Rau said.
Different Free Box groups operate in different ways. Some, like the Colorado based Telluride Free Box, have actual locations where neighbors, strangers and tourists can visit a physical space to peruse the shelves for things they need. A growing number of similar groups operate online either independently or with the assistance of not-for-profit organizations, such as the Buy Nothing Project or Freecycle Network. Both organizations offer online opportunities for individuals interested in “giving and getting stuff free” to find people in their neighborhoods with whom to interact. They both also offer online tools for managing reciprocal altruistic experiences, reporting suspicious posts, or blocking unwanted responders, and have paid staff to oversee operations that cater to thousands of users in local groups across the country.
Beverly Free Box is not connected with a larger network. Instead, Rau and friend and co-administrator, Maureen Schleyer, manage the Facebook page where transactions transpire. In addition to promoting the hyper-reuse of various things, BFB also builds community. “We’ve seen friendships develop. We have people who are really invested in the group, and it’s a part of their daily lives,” Rau said. “I’ve talked to people who said they didn’t feel connected or know the neighborhood as well until they started free boxing.”
BFB has over 3800 members and fields approximately 3500 transactions a month. Though the group has a private Facebook page, membership is open to anyone who meets their qualifications. Members must live in Beverly; agree to not claim anything until giving something away; and they cannot be members in multiple free box groups. Rau said these rules help the group remain hyperlocal.
Beverly Free Box is more about the people than the items. We want you to feel connected to the person you are giving to. — BFB co-administrator, Maureen Schleyer
Using the site is simple, which was intentional, said Schleyer, who was aware of groups where people had to prove they needed an item before claiming it. “With Beverly Free Box, the first to claim, gets the item. Sometimes things are raffled, but you don’t have to prove your need, you simply claim it,” Schleyer said.
Acquisition of items is decided between the donor and the recipient, and a lot of items are picked up on porches, but the recipient may have to arrange for delivery of larger items, like pianos, organs and armoires. BFB member Clare Duggan acquired a Grange of France armoire, which can be valued at $8000 to $30,000. She paid $500 to have it delivered to her home and says it was well worth the cost due to its sentimental value to her family.
Some of the other higher-priced items passed on have been a four-day vacation to a resort in the Bahamas, laptops and pianos. Among the least expensive were plant clippings, overly ripe bananas, perfume samples and broken crayons.
In addition to posting available items, members can request ISO (in search of) items. BFB member Anne-Marie Williams needed pill bottles to create emergency kits of $3 in quarters and a dryer sheet for people who are homeless. “I asked for pill bottles and got 500 overnight. There was an insane amount of people giving,” Williams said.
Curb alerts and an in-person swap meets are two other ways BFB promotes reuse. Members may see usable items sitting on a curb prior to garbage pick-up, and will post an alert for anyone interested and able to pick the items up. Members can also post requests for items to help women who have been displaced due to domestic violence, families victimized by fires, or youth seen walking to school without winter coats and boots.
“There is always a cascade of giving during those times,” said Frau, who is amazed but not surprised by immediate altruistic responses from neighbors, particularly during times of hardship like the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, a Los Angeles-based Buy Nothing group had just 40 members. A year later it skyrocketed to over 1800 members. BFB membership growth has been consistent over its four-year existence, even during the pandemic. But Schleyer said, the pandemic intensified BFB neighbor connections. “We got closer as a community,” she said.
Free Box also built a sense of community and camaraderie when we all needed to connect with others in some way to make it through the long periods of isolation. — BFB member Monica Wilczak.
“While Beverly may be perceived as having primarily higher-income residents, we really represent a greater spectrum of income levels,” Wilczak continued. “Also, unexpected losses in employment, housing, or health issues caused devastating insecurities during the pandemic. I’ve seen free boxers step up when a family becomes homeless due to a fire or marital crisis.”
Rau and Schleyer say people have been isolated and anxious, but they don’t hesitate to help others. During the pandemic, BFB created an environment of giving, helping and advising. Some posted messages of gratitude or dropped off kind notes, flowers, and sometimes wine. Others joined the fight to thwart COVID-19 by donating bundles of elastic to a group that made masks for people who needed them, long before government-led distributions. Another BFB member asked people to donate wooden tabletops or planks to aid his efforts to build desks for the sudden inflation of remote learners in the neighborhood. “I loved being a part of that,” Schleyer said.
As unified as BFB is, there have been challenges in administering the group and coming up with answers for every issue. Both women monitor posts to ensure malicious bots do not become members, delete posts that break rules, and handle conflicts and misunderstandings.
Schleyer and Rau address every issue as best they can. They don’t always have the answers, but as neighbors moderating a tight-knit community, they are always open to conversation.