It was not until after Angela Parker, 53, had raced across her north Atlanta neighborhood to nab eight leftover, thick-cut slices of ham with gravy from the porch of someone she didn’t know that she began to ask herself some questions. Was it weird to eat a stranger’s porch ham? Was it safe? Would the ham be worth it?
It was free, so — yes?
Parker had been alerted to the ham via her neighborhood’s Buy Nothing group, where people offer up their belongings to neighbors who might need or want them. The ham-givers had leftovers from a party, they said, and it was from Matthew’s Cafeteria, a legendary old-school Southern restaurant.
Sure enough, it was delicious. Well worth the (nonexistent) price.
“Ham’s my jam,” Parker says. “I enjoyed the heck out of it, on some Hawaiian bread.”
Meanwhile, in the Takoma Park area of D.C., Julie Patton Lawson, 44, posted a free item on her Buy Nothing group: 13 gallons of guinea pig poop.
“They eat a lot of fiber, so they poop a lot,” says Lawson, who owns four guinea pigs and is fostering seven others. She had been using their poop as occasional fertilizer in her garden, but with 11 guinea pigs in the home she had more poop than she needed. Also, her dogs kept eating it. So Lawson decided to offer it up to her neighbors.
“Within an hour I had one inquiry, and she came and picked up that bag the next day,” she says. “I have other people asking me, ‘So when will you have your next bag?’”
There have always been scrappers and freecyclers prowling the curbsides on trash day for castoff furniture and other treasures. The people who think, “Someone could use this,” and the people who do. They are scrimpers and savers, environmentalists, neighborhood do-gooders, benevolent hoarders; people who love stuff and hate waste and have a high threshold for risk, or just a quirky sense of adventure.
Who wants this raccoon skull? This possibly haunted baby doll? This toilet seat? These three mismatched spoons? A landline phone shaped like a shoe?
The answer is, almost always, somebody. Especially if it’s free.
Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller started the Buy Nothing Project as an experiment on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. The idea was to encourage their neighbors to give away unwanted possessions instead of trashing them, and to take others’ things instead of buying something new and adding to the heaps of plastic junk circulating the globe. People can also use the app to ask if other people in their communities have a thing they need and would be willing to part with it — for free. That part is important. Members are prohibited from selling and trading, or even mentioning the monetary value of items.
By design, each participating neighborhood has its own volunteer-led group — to keep the giving close and convenient, though this presents issues regarding access and equity — rich neighbors give away fancier stuff, and more of it. People swap their stuff over Facebook or the Buy Nothing app. The movement spread dramatically over the last few years and now encompasses more than 7,000 groups.
“I’m a complete Buy Nothing freak,” says Katjusa Cisar, 41, who writes a newsletter, Curb Alert, about her adventures in scoring used finds on mailing lists and in thrift stores.
Expiration dates do not faze her. She has, on more than one occasion, obtained free used underwear. (“I just took them home and washed them,” she shrugs.) Some of her recent acquisitions from her Milwaukee-area Buy Nothing have included a Gucci Mane puzzle, a vintage book about CB radios, bunk beds for her kids, a half-empty container of contact lens solution and a tub full of mostly expired cosmetics and beauty products (some of them were rancid and needed to be tossed). Things she has successfully given in the past include a half-eaten bag of frozen chicken tenders, a book about witchcraft and a broken hot dog roller, like the ones in convenience stores.
“A misconception that people have about Buy Nothing, if they’re unfamiliar with it, is that it’s charity,” says Cisar. “The number one goal of Buy Nothing, at least for the group I’m in, is to save things from going into the garbage.”
Clark, the co-founder, has seen some strange gifts and requests in groups. A neighbor once asked for a plot of land to bury a beloved dog. In the Pacific Northwest, a more-common-than-you’d-think posting is for owl pellets, a term for the bird’s regurgitations, where the skeletal remains of the animals it’s eaten are often preserved.
“A lot of home-schooling families or teachers ask for owl pellets,” Clark says, “because the students get to go through them and learn about the various bones.”
There’s an Instagram account (there always is!) called “the best of buy nothing,” which documents odd items that show up on the giveaway groups. Sex toys make frequent appearances. Other finds have included an empty (used) container for cremated remains, an X-ray film of the giver-awayer’s head and neck and a deflated volleyball.
There’s a lid for every pot, as the saying goes. Who could possibly want a terrifyingly realistic animatronic chimpanzee head, which loudly grunts and bellows? And which has sensors so its eyes follow you as you move? (And which was also broken, according to the owner?)
That would be Britny Adams, 36, of Colleyville, Tex.
When a member of her Buy Nothing group posted the bellowing chimp head last week, Adams went for it.
“I commented that I wanted it to scare my mother, because she had a pet monkey growing up in the ’70s,” she said.
The piece wasn’t actually broken, Adams says. The batteries were just stuck. Now it bellows great. The chimp head, she says, has provided hours of entertainment for her six-year-old child — and hours of abject terror for her dog. They named him Ape Ventura.
The plan might have been to prank her mother, but Adams ended up pranking herself. When she returned home last week from an evening with friends, she suddenly noticed Ape Ventura, staring at her in the dark. Adams screeched with fright. Her husband screeched with laughter. Ape Ventura screeched with screeching monkey noises.
I scored this monkey head from my local Buy Nothing on Monday. I have no use for this item but how could I pass it up. 🤷♀️ pic.twitter.com/diAVL0GtBG— Britny Adams (@BritnyAdams) January 21, 2023
There is something about free stuff that makes us abandon all rational thought.
“What our research has basically shown is that when people encounter items that are free, they overvalue them,” says Nina Mazar, a marketing professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.
Take, for example, the case of the two granola bars.
Anna Paone Levy, 32, didn’t really like a box of almond coconut chocolate chip granola bars that she’d ordered on Instacart. After eating a few of them, she posted them on Buy Nothing, and somebody claimed the remaining two. Which, on the one hand … two granola bars? Really? On the other hand, heck yeah — two free granola bars!
“From an economics perspective, we would just value those costs and the benefits,” says Mazar. Are two granola bars, worth no more than a dollar each, worth walking 15 minutes for? Most people value their time at a higher rate than that, and so would be losing value on the deal, even if the bars were free. (Paone Levy didn’t know how far the woman had traveled.)
It goes the other way, too. People could try to sell all the miscellaneous stuff that ends up on Buy Nothing, but given the time and effort (and perhaps guilt) that comes with finding a buyer, giving it away can be the more economical solution.
And many people put their junk on Buy Nothing simply because it is unsellable.
After Paone Levy unloaded the two granola bars, her husband tweeted with astonishment about the exchange — a post that provoked other people to share their own observations about Buy Nothing’s bizarro economy. One person posted a screenshot of a free squeegee and used toilet brush that, despite the giver’s assurances that he “ran both through dish washer,” still bore some alarming brown stains. Another person shared an offer of birth control pills — but only the row of placebos at the bottom of the pack.
A third sent a screenshot of an offer for something called the “Privacy Pop,” which is a tent that goes over a dorm bed. “We bought it for our son freshman year in college in case a sleep-over visitor wanted a little privacy with another roomie present — never used.”
Similar genre: an Arlington, Va., woman was cleaning out some drawers when she encountered some condoms a month away from expiration. “I was looking at my nightstand and I was like, ‘Oh, well, that was a hopeful purchase,’” says Olga, 43, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to save face.
There were no takers. “I gave it a few days and then I just threw them out,” she says.
If these examples of unused giveaway items made you think of the famous six-word short story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway — “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” — then you’re not alone.
Jason Loviglio, 58, is the poet laureate of his Baltimore neighborhood’s giveaway group. People’s castoff items are “a very generative source for art,” he says.
Loviglio, who says he once saw someone post an offering of three celery sticks, writes poetry based on the absurd offers he sees in his group, which has included hornworms, champagne yeast, irritable bowel syndrome medication and too-spicy gumballs. Here’s one of his masterpieces:
Saddest short story on the ListservFree: Child’s ViolinNever been played well
Bridget Pooley’s giveaway ordeal was less like a poem, more like a riddle.
She had moved into a house in St. Paul, Minn., that came with a rain barrel. It had proved useful in the warm months, providing a reserve of water for her garden. As the weather got colder she worried about what would happen to the rainwater-filled barrel when temperatures plunged below freezing.
A friend suggested putting it on Buy Nothing.
Meaning the water, not the barrel.
“It has more nutrients, right? And it’s not processed, so it’s better for plants. And so I thought people would maybe come over and get some water,” says Pooley, 34.
What happened, instead, is that she spent a bunch of time warding off people who thought she was giving away the barrel. The day ended with her confronting someone in her yard who had emptied it — apparently thinking he could take the barrel without the water — and saturated her lawn in the process.
“I felt like an idiot,” Pooley says. “But I think it was a good laugh for some folks.”
An earlier version of this article said that Julie Patton Lawson lives in Takoma Park, Md. She lives in the Takoma Park area of D.C. This version has been corrected.