One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so goes the saying. That is certainly evident through the rise of exchanges on platforms such as Olio, Facebook Marketplace and Nextdoor, where people happily take their neighbours’ unwanted goods off their hands. Sometimes items are new or as good as new; sometimes they are a piece of furniture to upcycle and breathe new life into.
From saving money to helping the planet, many people turn to volunteer-run online communities focused on goods that would otherwise go to landfill, rather than head to Ikea. Searches for the term “Freecycle” have increased 22% from July 2018 to July 2021, while the number of people Googling “where can I find free stuff?” shot up 800% over the same period, according to the data provider SEMrush. Some scour skips, the streets, and ask around in their community for free stuff – all ways of consuming without spending a penny.
From materials for a garden bar to a whole flat’s worth of furnishings, four people tell us what they have picked up for free over the years.
‘We’ve got Habitat chairs and a bench someone was giving away’
“It’s not really about saving money,” says Fin Craig, 56, on her obsession with looking for free goods. “It’s about climate change and overproduction. We overconsume and we’re destroying the planet. There’s so much stuff in the world. We don’t need to buy more stuff. We’re slaves to all of this. People think that if they need a bookcase they have to buy it right now. But if you wait and look around, someone will be throwing one out.”
A committed environmentalist, it is no surprise to hear that Craig, a paediatrician living in north London, never buys new products “unless we really can’t find it secondhand or for free”. She says most of the furniture – chest of drawers, cabinet, shelves, desk – in her two sons’ rooms was found in the street or sourced from Olio, the food and household goods sharing app. “We live in a house of mismatched furniture,” she laughs.
She says her garden is her favourite area full of free goods. “We’ve got two Habitat chairs and a bench someone was giving away. One of my best finds this summer was one of those big egg chairs listed on Olio that was still in the wrapper and cost £410 originally. There’s also a bench I found in a skip. I always take things out of skips, even bits of wood that I think I’ll use for something else like making shelves or for a bench. When I’m going from A to B, I always keep my eyes open.”
Craig is happy that her penchant for free things runs in the family. “To be honest, my proudest moment was when the children arrived home from primary school carrying a bookcase that they could barely carry that they found on the street,” she says. “I thought: ‘I’ve trained them well.’”
‘We’ve spent less than £100 on the whole flat’
Originally from Taiwan, Fang-Chun Hsu says there’s a stark difference between the UK and the east Asian country when it comes to consumer behaviour. “Growing up, I barely saw my parents throw anything away,” says the 25-year-old sales adviser. “They’d say everything was usable. In Taiwan, people don’t get rid of things. I don’t know if it’s a different culture but here people seem to buy things and change them easily.”
Hsu says she started sourcing furniture for free as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “Before Covid if I needed something I’d just go to the shop and get it but then I lost my job and my boyfriend was furloughed,” she says. “We needed to save as much money as possible.”
It was when they moved into an unfurnished flat in Bristol earlier this year that they really started to get the most out of platforms such as Facebook Marketplace, Trash Nothing and Olio. “I found two sofas for the flat. One was from Next and barely used and would have cost at least £1,000. We’ve got everything for the flat – crockery, kitchenware, two chest of drawers – from such platforms.
“Trash Nothing seems to be an older generation and we’ve picked up a vintage lamp on there from a family clearing out their parents’ house, and also kitchen equipment and a light shade.” She says it is a win-win situation. “It stops people taking stuff to the tip, and it’s a win for myself and the environment. I also feel like I’m part of the local community. Financially it’s helped massively. We calculated that we’ve spent less than £100 on the whole flat. My partner didn’t like it at first as he was the one driving, and he’d be like: ‘Where are we going now?’ but he sees it as fun and gets really involved.”
Hsu says the platforms can be quite competitive. “People are really professional on them and snap things up quickly, so if you want something you have to keep your eye on the websites,” she says. “But as I’ve got most of what I need, I don’t go on them as much as I used to. I don’t want to be a hoarder.”
‘One friend picked up three chairs for me at a skip’
Chantelle Laws, 41, is a self-proclaimed champion skip diver and landfill saviour. “Skip diving is a favourite of hobby of mine,” she says. “I’ve got friends who send me pictures of skips and the address of where they’re located. One friend picked up three chairs for me at a skip as she thought I’d like them. If I spot a skip I will quite often drive back to have a look through it. Often it’s full of bricks but even if something is broken, it’s very fixable.”
One find is a rug that she spotted early one morning while walking the dog. “It was rolled up outside a neighbour’s house next to the bins,” she says. “That was more than 10 years ago – three houses and four kids later and it still looks good.” Last month she picked up an old pub table that had the legs sawn off. “We’ll just get new legs for it.”
Nottingham-based Laws, the owner of an upcycling business, Jaunty Junk, says her mindset stems from her family. “I was brought up with thrifty parents, grandparents, auntie and uncles. They weren’t exactly money tight but would think: ‘Why waste it?’ Mum was very careful with money. We lived in charity shops and she was always getting bargains, hand-me-downs, and we grew our own veg. The foundation was there from an early age. I used to tootle around charity shops then realised I could get a lot for free because people chuck stuff out.” When she left home and needed to furnish a room in a shared house, she says she “begged, borrowed and skip dived”.
She loves seeing people’s faces when they visit her house and compliment her furniture. “I have some things from people’s barns here, too,” she says. “I’ll ask them: ‘What are you doing with that?’ and they’ll say: ‘Nothing, it’s in the way.’
“I got a beautiful 1920s small velvet chair that was in someone’s barn and in a really good condition. In another one I picked up an original HMV record player. Not long ago I was in someone’s garage and they had a huge oak cabinet and they said they wanted to get rid of it. You just have to ask.”
‘I’ve got a couple of computers that were being got rid of’
“I don’t like waste in general,” says James Bore, 38, a director of a cybersecurity company and a virtual events company. “I don’t like to see things going to waste if you can still use them.”
Bore get everything from technology to food for free. “I’m always determined to source free stuff as much as possible and reuse it rather than buying new computer kit,” he says. “I’ve got a couple of computers that were being got rid of and almost all upgrades kits.”
His challenge during lockdown was building a makeshift bar in the garden, with all of the materials except the nails found for free. “I picked up pallets from a nearby garden centre, which formed the frame of the bar,” he says. “I sourced the lights from a nearby community park group, which was clearing out some stuff, while the fridge-freezer was from someone who was about to dump it. My parents were getting rid of the gazebo, and the bath was a lucky find on a trip to Belgium where there was a flat refurbishment and someone was getting rid of a 1950s old corner bath, which I thought I could use as a firepit or barbecue. It’s not the most efficient but it does cook well. All of the cups in the bar are tin cans with the tops cut off.”
Food is another thing Bore gets for free. “I took a butchery course a while ago and so I find game people who are giving away game such as pigeons and rabbits. It’s easy to find through Facebook groups and other networking groups.”
He also collects fruit and vegetables that are not going to be used. “It could be someone with an apple tree or grapes that will go to waste. I usually make my own wine with the grapes,” he says.
Free sources: where to get free stuff
Nextdoor A hyperlocal app where you can swap and source goods for free from neighbours, as well as buy things.
Freecycle As its name suggests, it’s all for free and you can post items you’re looking for, too.
Facebook Marketplace Pick up everything from wardrobe to clothes.
Olio What started as an app to share food has moved into everything else.
Freegle Similar to Freecycle, a volunteer-run platform where you pop in your location and see what is being offered locally.
Trash Nothing Another website and app with people giving away unwanted products to others living in their community.
Skips Technically the items still belong to someone, so knock on the door and ask before taking anything.