Nonprofit executive and website creator
Born c. 1968 in Lancaster, OH; married Jennifer Columbus (a pastry chef), 2003. Education: Earned undergraduate and M.B.A degrees from Georgetown University; studied literature in Germany.
Addresses: Office—c/o RISE, Inc., 82 S. Stone Ave., Tucson, AZ 85701.
Worked as a finance manager for Procter & Gamble; became director of RISE Inc., November, 2002; launched Freecycle.org, May, 2003.
Deron Beal created the Internet phenomenon Freecycle.org in the spring of 2003, and oversaw its growth from a mere e-mail he sent out to a few dozen friends and colleagues into a nearly million-member-strong cyber-marvel over the next two years. Freecycle, which has no membership fees or requirements, allows users to post messages on their local community's Freecycle website about items they would like to discard, and they can also send out a query for various goods which they are seeking for their own households. The Virginian Pilot described it as "a sort of virtual curb on the Internet where people can unload everything from hot tubs to seeds to old clothes."
A native of Lancaster, Ohio, Beal was in his mid-thirties when Freecycle.org became the newest eBay-like community in cyberspace. He is a graduate of Georgetown University's rigorous foreign-service studies program, a stepping stone for a career with the U.S. State Department diplomacy corps, and earned a graduate degree in business from Georgetown as well. For a time, he worked as a finance manager at the Cincinnati, Ohio-based consumergoods giant Procter & Gamble, but left the job to study literature in Germany. From there, he became interested in environmental activism, and eventually wound up in Tucson, Arizona, where he ran a nonprofit recycling organization called RISE Inc.
RISE is a recycling service and employment training group for Tucson-area businesses, and Beal, after taking over in late 2002, was amazed at what companies chucked out the back door every day. "The businesses started giving us all this stuff that's not recyclable but that they don't want to throw away," he recalled in an interview with People writer Richard Jerome. "Computers, desks. I didn't know what to do with it, but I couldn't bear to say no." After spending hours on the phone trying to find takers for the used—but still usable—goods that he knew would eventually wind up in a landfill if he could not find them a home, in May of 2003 he came up with the idea for Freecycle and outlined his scheme in an e-mail. "I just sent the information out to my friends and 10 to 15 nonprofits and said, 'Spread the word,'" he told Christian Science Monitor writer Tim King. "You get free stuff, and you get to give away the junk in your garage."
Beal created some simple rules for Freecycle.org: users can either post what they have, or what they might like, but their first post must be an offer of something they would like to jettison. All goods must be free to anyone willing to take them, and the taker must make the arrangements for pick-up and transport. The original recipients of that first e-mail did indeed pass it on, and it seemed to click immediately with scores of subsequent e-mail addressees. Nearly everyone, it turned out, had something which they wanted to see vanish from their household or business, and Beal realized he had tapped into an unspoken desire. "We get it drilled into us on television ads: 'Consume, consume, consume. You want more, you need more,' and do we really?" he ventured in an interview with Tina Kelley of the New York Times. "I think what's coming out with freecycling is, 'Gee, it's kind of fun not to be into all this.'
Initially, Beal's Freecycle.org was not even an official website, merely a "listserv" group on the Internet portal Yahoo. The number of users grew exponentially after an article about it in the Christian Science Monitor in October of 2003, its first mention in the mainstream print media, and new chapters across the United States seemed to spring up daily. A year after its launch, Beal's cyber-community had grown to more than 500,000 members in 1,500 cities, and by early 2005 had more than 900,000 members.
One of the most popular items for exchange on Freecycle.org was exercise equipment, and the most unusual was a telephone pole, but Beal's personal favorite was a bottle of partially used hair dye, which needs to be applied within a few hours of mixing before self-combusting. There are Freecycle communities in Germany, Japan, and Australia, but in the United States cities like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, have the highest number of members. Beal estimates that about 20 to 40 tons of goods are traded daily thanks to the site, much of it falling under the "one person's trash is another's treasure" adage, but he is also proud that individual communities have stepped up to the plate when floods or other disasters strike and victims lose entire households. "We had two elderly people who didn't have insurance when part of their house burned down," he told King in the Christian Science Monitor interview. "One of the Freecycle people sent out a note saying they were getting set up at some other place and could use a bed, a couch, and other stuff. Within two days, they had everything they needed."
Beal kept his job at Tucson's RISE, and keeps the Freecycle.org phenomenon running with the help of local listserv moderators, who keep an eye on the posts for rule-breakers or spammers. In time, he plans to make it a freestanding, self-sufficient website. His own household, which he shares with wife Jennifer Columbus, a pastry chef, is furnished with some goods obtained via Freecycle. An idealist at heart still worried about the amount of consumer goods that pile up in landfill mountains across the American landscape, he believes Freecycle.org might someday spark a greater collective consciousness about even larger issues. "When it comes to the Internet and connecting with one another, there are no limitations," he enthused in an interview with Rosemary Barnes of the San Antonio Express-News. "We'll continue growing and experiencing the goodness that comes from giving."
Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 2003, p. 13.
New York Times, March 16, 2004, p. B1.
People, May 10, 2004, p. 195.
San Antonio Express-News, October 30, 2004.
Virginian Pilot, January 10, 2005, p. D1.