Posted by Bellevue resident Lindsay Gibson in 2019, the taxidermied alligator head, pictured alongside a fork for scale, reads, “Small alligator head. Sharp teeth.” Even more confounding is the following sentence, “Will draw name due to multiple interests,” meaning a lot of people were scrambling to get their hands on this curious little item.
This is just one especially weird example of something Facebook users might stumble upon when scrolling through their neighborhood Buy Nothing group. But mostly, joining a Buy Nothing group means relying on neighbors for more common items like kitchenware and appliances, electronics, furniture, and second-hand clothing, all at no cost. Users can rely on the randomness of posts to see if someone nearby has just what they need, or they can request something and cross their fingers that someone is giving that very thing away.
Likely, no matter where you live, a Buy Nothing group has already been set up and can be found easily through a Facebook search.
The concept started with the Buy Nothing Project back in 2013, when two Washington state women embarked on an “experimental hyper-local gift economy,” according to the project’s website. Since then, it has quickly expanded into cities around the globe, with the mission of helping people while also combating rampant consumerism through a trust and trade-based system. Gibson, the member of a group that includes the North Hills communities of Bellevue, Avalon, West View, Ben Avon, and Emsworth, says she became interested in Buy Nothing groups as a stay-at-home parent.
She adds that — besides free baby clothing, toys, and accessories — in-demand items from her group tend to be pots and pans and cutlery, or cardboard boxes for moving or storage. But she says even the most unexpected contributions generate interest. This includes leftover food, and she shares posts showing a half-eaten cake and an opened pack of beef patties, among others. Even a post giving away an unfinished rotisserie chicken with the breast meat carved off received replies from people saying they could use it.
“For whatever reason, I don’t think food is common in most groups, but it is in ours,” says Gibson. “I think it’s the Pittsburgh hang up on having an extra refrigerator or deep freezer. Someone recently gave away a bunch of frozen oxtail they ‘just knew they weren’t going to eat.’”
Gibson says her own bizarre contribution, the alligator head, was a gift given to her two-year-old by their garbage collector, who had rescued it from the trash. She decided to give it away because the novelty of playing with it had worn off quickly for her toddler.
Sometimes, the groups serve another purpose as a place to borrow items or to solicit services like dog walking or lawn mowing. Gibsons says this gives people options that help them save both money and time.
“I recently loaned someone a steam cleaner for a small clean-up job, and she was so grateful to just not have to bother with a rental cleaner and returned it later that day,” says Gibson.
While well-meaning, Buy Nothing groups aren’t without their challenges, especially for those tasked with running them. Yvette Menase volunteers as an administrator for the Buy Nothing Highland Park/Morningside/Stanton Heights/Larimer group, along with two other people. She says her group initially belonged to one that included Lawrenceville, Garfield, Friendship, Bloomfield, and East Liberty, and it had over 2,000 members. But within a year, it quadrupled in size, meaning they had to “sprout,” or split the group up into three, more hyper-localized groups, which required a fair amount of work.
Menase, who works professionally as a product manager for the Pittsburgh-based podcast hosting company Libsyn, says that while some members were dismayed over the sprouting at first, the move has actually resulted in less "competition" for giveaways, as well as other advantages. “Instead of ten people wanting something, usually only a few will,” says Menase. “Also, each group's surface area is smaller, so that encourages people to pick up items more conveniently.”
Like Gibson, Menase says her Buy Nothing group has people trading food, both for humans and for cats, as well as clothes or items people can use for Do It Yourself projects, crafting, or gardening. She cites seltzer water as a popular one, with people giving away flavors they don’t like.
But because this is Facebook, there’s always the risk of social media drama entering the group. To avoid this, Menase says they don’t allow discussions of political candidates and parties, and even giving away political yard signs is prohibited. Still, she admits that there have been instances of people who “get aggressive with other members.”
“Usually people are kind, but an item will sometimes spark a debate,” says Menase. “I try to intervene, but people can be stubborn. There is a point where we will remove someone, but given the community, people are perfectly capable of starting a similar debate on other platforms, which we have no control over.”
Still, while disagreements are expected, abusive or hateful speech is not, which has led Menase to delete a few comments.
As for why the Buy Nothing movement grew so quickly, Menase believes the COVID-19 pandemic has a lot to do with it. She says being stuck at home has led some people to declutter their living spaces. Access to free, mostly useful items also appeals to the many people who have lost employment over the last year. And, as opposed to shopping at a grocery store or retail space, where the risk of contracting the coronavirus is higher, Buy Nothing seems like a safer bet, as people can usually do contactless porch or stoop pickups.
Menase says Buy Nothing groups also offer personal connections and neighborly kindness in a time when so many are feeling isolated and helpless.
As the Pittsburgh Buy Nothing movement grows, Menase wants to ensure that it strives for inclusivity. She stresses that the organization “supports the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities, and other human rights,” adding that they “seek accessibility and equity for all and welcome ideas on how to improve.” At its core, though, Gibson believes Buy Nothing offers people a chance to do something good for themselves and for other people.
“For me, it’s really easy to find a handful of things I no longer have use for, but would be a hassle to pack up and drive to give away at Goodwill or a similar donation drop off,” says Gibson. “It’s a quick way to feel accomplished and generous because after you’ve cleared some clutter, someone else immediately comes along to appreciate the effort.”