Nine months ago, Vishal Dhaybhai, 31, a design entrepreneur from Udaipur in Rajasthan, was looking for an affordable smartphone. His friends suggested that he get a second-hand one, and directed him to a local store called Dariya Dil Dukaan (DDD).
"When I got there, I found a couple of smartphones that looked good and were in good condition," says Dhaybhai, "I asked the price, and they told me the phones were free. I was delighted, and picked one." Back home with his free new phone, Dhaybhai had a thought. "The next day, I went back and gave them my old phone, which was still in good condition," he says.
"I felt, if a stranger could share something and make me happy, I should do the same for someone else."
That, in essence, is the principle of freecycling, a philosophy that originated in the US, encouraging consumers to recycle goods by passing them on for free- and take from a common pool of donated goods, rather than buying fresh merchandise.
Anjali Khurana, 30, a marketing executive with a TV channel, is also moderator of the Mumbai branch of online network Freecycle.org.
It began as an urban tradition in New York, where residents would leave items they no longer wanted- mainly furniture- on pavements, for passersby to pick up if they liked. Usually, these items were in good condition and the recipient was free to place his own couch, for instance, on his kerb as he installed the one he had picked up for free.
With the environmental movement and its motto of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle picking up over the past few decades, this pay-it-forward approach took on an eco-friendly tone as individuals and organisations across the Western world began creating popup events and community spaces where others could give or take for free, in an effort to reuse items and keep usable material out of landfills.
Now, the freecycling movement is catching on in India, where a growing middle class is shedding the traditional aversion to using a stranger's cast-offs and trying to make the give-and-take of freecycling part of an eco-friendly lifestyle. US-based network Freecycle.org, for instance, has virtual branches in 16 cities- a number that has grown from its first e-centre in Bangalore in 2006 to its latest, in Chengannur in Kerala, set up this July. These e-centres operate as portals, allowing members to post details of what they want to give or take.
A moderator picked from within the local e-community ensures that all products are free, legal and appropriate for all ages. Inspired by Freecycle.org, standalone initiatives such as Darya Dil Dukaan (which roughly translates as 'a shop from the heart', in Hindi) and The Free Store (TFS), a pop-up initiative operating in Mumbai and Thane are now operating on similar lines offline.
"From used wheelchairs and computers to suits and gardening equipment, pretty much anything can change hands and there is no payment of any kind involved," says Chryselle D'Silva Dias, 40, a freelance writer and moderator for Freecycle.org in Goa.
"Members can sign up for regular updates or send out a message about a specific item they need. They can then arrange to meet the donor or recipient offline for the exchange."
Dias has herself received clothes and toys for her five-year-old, and a wheelchair for her domestic help, who needed it for a family member. And she has given away furniture, clothes and cellphone chargers.
"During my stay in England in 2005, I read about Freecycle.org in a local newspaper. It sounded interesting and I decided to join, just to be a part of the community. A year later, they set up their first branch in India and, in 2008, the Goa branch was opened," says Dias.
Paying it forward
"Freecycling captures perfectly the spirit of the three 'R's of the environment movement - Reduce, Reuse and Recycle," says Rishi Aggrawal, an environmental activist and fellow at the Observer Research Foundation thinktank in Mumbai.
Walk-ins browse in the nursery and garments sections of Udaipur-based Darya Dil Dukaan, a freecycling store where you can pick up what you please at no cost
"There are times when you buy a new electronic device and discard the old one, which is still in good condition. Such discarded devices become a burden on the environment."
To be fair, Aggrawal adds, India has a great culture of recycling. "We have always exchanged old clothes for metal utensils, for instance, and this practice is still prevalent," he adds.
"But as consumerism comes full circle, and people tire of having objects around that they never needed and barely used, we are now adopting this Western model of passing it on. In a sense, web portals that help people sell used products are an extension of this approach."
Social anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan would agree. "Informally, freecycling has always been common within families. Pop-ups and small community spaces are, in that sense, following the old customs in newer ways," he says.
With the rise of the nuclear family, freecycling groups are also helping bridge the gap in urban India between people with barely used goods to share and those eager to use them rather than buy afresh. Freecycling helps individuals participate in a society beyond consumerism, adds sociologist Gita Chadha.
"In today's highly alienating and materialistic world, people are eager to create a sense of sharing and community. These initiatives signal that desire," Chadha adds.
That was certainly the motivation for Vidhi, 41, and Manish Jain, 45, who set up Dariya Dil Dukaan (DDD) in Udaipur in 2011.
"Our mission was to create a culture of giving and sharing- in the absence of money," says Vidhi.
The concept is aimed at reducing senseless consumption and minimising impact on the environment. The Jains are also founders of Udaipur-based alternative 'unlearning centre' Shikshantar.
"It was through foreign volunteers for Shikshantar that we first heard the term freecycling," says Vidhi.
"It sounded like a wonderful concept, so we decided to use part of our Shikshantar space to create an offline space where people could give or take freely," says Jain.
Software engineer Sagar K, 27, holds up the BlackBerry phone he picked up on Freecycle. org last October (Photo: HT/ Vidya Subramanian)
"In the process, we have created a space where we can smile at each other, make friends, and build trust in the community. It's a new concept for Udaipur, but one that grows from our traditional values and culture."
On the road
In Mumbai, a group of six friends set up The Free Store in May 2013, a pop-up initiative that holds events where people can give or take not just physical object but also information, tips and knowledge.
"We connect with donors, recipients and volunteers via Facebook and email," says Kiran Dave, 19, a mass-media student and co-founder of The Free Store.
"Those who wish to pass on belongings are invited to attend our pop-up events or meet a volunteer to hand them over."
Since its first event in May 2013, the group has organised three other pop-ups - two at a shopping centre and two at parks in Thane.
"Basically, it's a stall with a few tables and chairs," says Dave, laughing.
"We were actually inspired by Dariya Dil Dukaan and the Freecycle.org network. We want to encourage people to give and take without calculating. We believe this will foster trust and faith in the communities we visit."
So far, the pop-ups have received and passed forward 70 books, 35 items of clothing, eight umbrellas, a few pair of shoes, CDs, board games, stationery items and toys.
"Someone recently even gave away an iPod," says Dave.
"This makes us think people have started to imbibe the spirit of trusting and sharing - and the advantages and importance of freecycling."
Among the visitors to the pop-up events has been student Sejal Jani, 21. "I had a great experience at the event and met different and interesting people," says Jani. "I even picked up a novel, for free. Now I am planning to share it back at the next pop-up, so that someone else can benefit from my freecycling."