It’s not a rubbish idea: free-cycling unwanted stuff for the good of the planet

Free goods to go  in south-east London Pic: Peter Rizal Zwingli Hall

Is free-recycling the answer to fly-tipping? FREE STUFF South East London is leading by example, making those in need happy as well as keeping our streets clean. Yasmine Hajji reports.

Walking down any street in London, you will be met by strewn cardboard boxes, damp mattresses and discarded clothes. Household goods that were once loved by their owners are being tossed out into the cold. Without a care for the environment or a desire to give this ‘stuff’ a second home, our large consumption habits have made dumping unwanted goods a regular practise.

And London is just about the worst place in the country for fly-tipping, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2014/15 annual report which discloses that 4o per cent of fly-tipping takes place in the capital.

Budget cuts to waste management has meant that there is a lack of funding for improving recycling facilities. Councils now rely on community action more than ever to provide solutions to our ‘waste problem’. In reusing and giving away stuff for free, free-recycling offers an accessible way of reducing fly-tipping caused by our large consumption habits.

John Coughlin, Lewisham’s only Green Party Councillor believes that fly-tipping is “one of the most anti-social and repugnant habits in our society today.” He encourages volunteer recycling efforts in order to combat fly-tipping, which he also believes engages communities and makes them more cohesive.

The largest online community for free recycling can be found on which spans over 70 countries. However, more informal efforts have been established across London with the help of social media. Freelance Designer and Illustrator, Tatiana Woolrych, 29, is based in Peckham where she also designs for and co-runs the Italian restaurant Oi Spaghetti. She created the Facebook group ‘FREE STUFF South East London’ two years ago.

Growing up in a place where austerity was the norm, Belarus-born Woolrych believes, “so much energy goes into making objects. If it’s not broken, why throw it away?” Her simple solution to seeing “stuff in skips, bins and people’s front gardens”, has spawned a lively online community. Racking up over 15,000 members and counting, even people outside of the subregion want to get in on the action.

“It didn’t occur to me to create my own community, I was thinking so globally. But I thought, hang on a second, this could be useful just here.” says Woolrych.

Spanning across the boroughs of Lewisham, Southwark, Greenwich, Bexley and Bromley; students, families in need or those who simply want to de-clutter, can pick up a wealth of free stuff at a click of a button.

“Fridges, freezers, mattresses, things that would often get chucked into gardens to rot and mould. Suddenly, there is a space where all you need to do is take a photo of it and people will come and take it.” Woolrych believes.

Nicola Hogan, the Space, Environment & Sustainability Officer for Goldsmiths, University of London,  one of Lewisham’s biggest enterprises, thinks that London’s waste problem comes down to the fact that “we have so much stuff that we don’t know what to do with it!”

“Popular and very easy to use”, Hogan regularly uses free recycling groups to run the campus as sustainably as possible. She thinks that these groups are “popular and very easy to use.”

“If you fly-tip something you’ve got to find a place to dump it. With free recycling, people come to your house. I know there is an element of danger in inviting strangers to your home but make sure you aren’t alone and do it in the day.” Hogan says.

Going for less than a song Pic: Haley Diston

Kim Ward, 50, joined FSSEL over a year ago and regularly uses free recycling as part of her job. Ward is a care worker and children’s centre leader for the Eliot Bank and Kelvin Grove Schools based in Lewisham. “Everyone is extremely generous, it’s amazing, ” she says.

She has now furnished four families from donations from the group alone and works with low-income families or those with no recourse; who are in the country waiting for their immigration status from the home office, unable to access benefits or housing.

Budget cuts have hit family services hard and now they rely on donations more than ever. Free recycling groups such as FSSEL provide a critical lifeline.

Ward joined the group whilst she was working with a mother who split from her partner. “She was living in a hostel and then got given a new property. So, one Sunday, with a friend, I went around and picked up wardrobes, dressing tables, a TV, all sorts of things.”

Woolrych is amazed at how the group has extended itself beyond students and graduates. Daily acts of charity from the online community has proved this group to be a reliable and caring resource for those in need.

Nathan David Smith, an ex-administrator of the group believes that there is also an egalitarian side to free-recycling. “It’s really important to fight against the nasty idea that getting something for free makes you a ‘scrounger’, or that giving something away makes you ‘charitable.’” He says.

The process of getting free stuff Woolrych thinks, is not “as easy as going to a shop.” The group operates on a first come, first serve basis. “You have to have time on your hands. To meet the other person, hope that they won’t stand you up or that the item is gone already. It might not be as accessible for people with 9-5 jobs,” she says.

Many group members have reached out to Woolrych for advice on how to recreate their own witty free-recycling groups in other areas. Citing the “little things”, she changes the group’s cover photo weekly to something silly. Woolrych believes the humour in the group comes down to the makeup of students and creatives living in South East London.

Often though, “like any Facebook group there have been a few people we had to ban for being rude or abusive”, says Smith. But taking a quick glance through the group throws up a wealth of heartwarming and entertaining comments from its users. Photos of lost travel cards or keys waiting to be reunited with their owners; homeless shelters looking for donations; cute cat pictures and an American passport on offer after Donald Trump’s election.

Woolrych’s “little kingdom” is host to a vibrant community who “go beyond just posting their mattress.”


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