Freecycle living can sneak up on you. Turns out, I've been freecycling for years and didn't even know it. 

My first apartment in New York City was decorated with a hodge-podge of items accumulated from family and friends: a carpet from my roommate's parents, a bookcase donated by my mom and dad, and a small coffee table belonging to a friend who had no space for it in her apartment. Just after I moved in, the friend brought the table over to my place instead of putting it out on the curb, and she insisted I take it for free. The table in question was faux "birch," stood 17 inches tall and retailed at IKEA for $12.99. I used it for the next seven years.

After a recent move — to an apartment where the decor did not call for a small, "birch" table from IKEA — I resolved to extend my friend's spirit of giving. Freecycle Network turned out to be the perfect place to go.  To fulfill my mission, I turned to this bustling online community of people who trade items they don't want to end up in a landfill.

In recent years, the group's members have mushroomed, and they've enjoyed considerable media attention. But the phenomenon started in 2003, when founder Deron Beal wanted to get rid of his old bed and e-mailed 30 of his friends. Within a month, the e-mail group had grown to 800 and showed no sign of slowing down. "Clearly it struck a chord, and kept growing like crazy," Beal says, when I reach him by phone in Arizona.

Freecycle has enabled a dizzying array of items, including clothing, furniture, kitchen appliances and electronics, to be donated instead of abandoned and acquired by desiring people instead of turned into waste. Two years ago, when Beal dug up his asphalt driveway (to replace it with dirt), he gave away several tons of concrete. "There is a huge niche between what Goodwill can sell and the landfill," Beal says. "Our main rule is, 'Keep it free, legal and appropriate for all ages.'" Beal says the Freecycle Network facilitates the exchange of several tons of clothing, electronics and other goods each day. To date, the network is comprised of 4,648 groups and 6.2 million members around the world.

With any luck, one of them might want my table, I thought one morning in November, when I registered and joined a Freecycle Network in my area. Sure enough, within minutes I received half a dozen responses, including one e-mail from a woman who wrote: "I'm interested in the table. Is it still available? I actually almost bought one at IKEA last weekend." (Unfortunately, her e-mail was among the last to hit my inbox, and I'd already pledged the table to a barista from Starbucks who planned to pick it up that afternoon.)

"I think more and more people are getting on the 'Green Train.' They're joining because they're saying, 'I don't need these things, but I don't want it to go in a landfill," says Christina Salvi, a coordinator of Freecycle in New York City, when I call her one weekend. Salvi, who is also an organizer of Recycle This!, an activist group, says when she first started the New York Freecycle group, she gave away nearly everything she owned to get the group going. Now Salvi estimates her network is responsible for a few hundred transactions each week, and she personally has found an iron, travel books and a bicycle on Freecycle. "There's so much stuff out there that's usable and free," she says.

To be sure, the day I sign up for Freecycle, an eclectic group of items were offered: a Beatles CD, a microwave that "works just fine" and -- one of the quirkier items -- a stack of vocabulary words from one family's word-a-day calendar. "We keep the ones we don't know to look at again later, but we have a stack a few inches high of words we do know," read the offer. "We hate to throw perfectly good words away."

Salvi is quick to dispel a common misconception that Freecycle is a one-stop source for free luxury goods. "People get this sense that it's Santa's workshop," says Salvi, describing posts seeking new television sets, iPods and other electronics. "We have to train people to understand how the group works."

Sara Hatfield, a 37-year-old personal trainer in Brooklyn, says she found solace in Freecycle after she broke up with her longtime boyfriend this past summer. "I did a huge closet purge," she says, listing the items she gave away, including books, a computer, printer, scarves and hats. Hatfield, a self-described "ex-hippie," says she loved knowing that someone would use her unwanted items. "I'm positive it's not going to the landfill, at least not on my karma," she says.

Hatfield also took some of her stuff to a local "FreeMeet," or flea market-type gathering where everything is free. She disposed of the ex-boyfriend's Diesel leather jacket and Diesel jeans. "That was very cleansing," she says. And vindictive? "Maybe a little," she admits with a laugh.

Even for non-green types, Freecycle may become more fashionable during the current recession, says Dr. Maurie Cohen, an associate professor in the graduate program in Environmental Policy Studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "When people lose their jobs they, with good reason, try to put a more positive gloss on it as they try go get back on their feet."

But Cohen points out that Freecycle has its limitations: "The larger culture denigrates second-hand goods, by and large," he says. Also, consumer products today are made so cheaply that sometimes it's easier to simply replace a worn or unwanted item. "Yesterday, one of my kids broke my electric pencil sharpener. What am I going to do? I'm not inclined nor do I have the skills to fix the thing. In most cases, from computers to radios to televisions, it's cheaper to just chuck the thing."

But in my case, I wanted to unload the table to someone who had a use for it, to keep the Freecycle legacy going. As my (bad) luck had it, the barista had a busy day at work and never picked up the table. So a week later, I reposted the table on Freecycle, again receiving a crush of e-mail responses. This time, I combed my inbox for a serious response from someone who provided a phone number and suggested a time to meet. A few e-mails later, I arranged to leave the table with my doorman for pick-up that evening.

I don't know what time the new owner of my IKEA table came by that night; I didn't check. But by the next morning, the table was gone.

More freecycle stories from the Mother Nature Network:

Freecycle and Recycling electronics

Freecycle and Building a Green Nursery