Fighting for freerecyling

Think of a number, and then double it

There are claims by TFN for the number of tons of “waste” not sent to landfill. As a mathematician I take a strong interest in how exactly these figures are calculated. So that is what I hope to do here.

On April 17th, 2005, Providence Journal, covering Rhode Island reported Emily Godfrey, a TFN moderator as saying, “daily, we are keeping 50 tons of trash out of landfills all over the world.” The “we” she was referring to was in reported as the US.

By the time we come into 2007 the claims become quite extraordinary. Just look at the report on Bay Soundings about a year later. This starts by revising the 2005 figure to, “100 million tons of goods out of the nation’s landfills in 2005.” It then goes on to cite the statistic, “200 tons Weight of trash reused by Freecycle members nationally every day.”

The first quote from Bay Soundings gives a clue as to what is going on with a philosophy which owes more to the wild guesstimation approach of, “think of a number then double it.”

Even more fun starts when you begin to read claims concerning Mount Everest by young Deron Beal.

Plan of Mount Everest

Just think about this picture. All the claims are about Mt Everest’s height – approximately 9000 metres above base camp. But what about is girth. The diagram above shows we are talking just short of 10 miles to base camp. Now, I cribbed this picture via from the American Physiological Society. Here a bunch of mathematicians were trying to work out the volume of Mount Everest – and struggling.

Just Now I can understand the interest in trying to work out how many tons are removed from landfill by freecycling groups. Firstly it may just be a fun game to play. Also it can be good marketing and sales ploy, “wow aren’t we good.”

However if it is used to raise investment, then we must start to think hard about what we are actually saying and be prepared to justify any claims.

If you look at the home page of The Freecycle Network you will see a logo for CalMax. This is a recycling initiative in California. This initiative has also funded TFN with I believe $50,000. To earn this TFN have to meet exacting targets of supporting the removal of even more items from landfill – all within one year. A report on the funding is available which was sent to me, though I have not tracked the link yet.

So now taxpayers money is being sent based on claims around what TFN saves from landfill. Apparently their claims are based on a study in partnership between “Iowa Recycles” and TFN, as reported at Stonehead blog. I have been unable to find this report on my searches through google. Again if someone could provide a link to the report that would help.

Looking back at CalMax one of their people actually looked at a local TFN group for three days. They reported in 2005 about the number of offered, wanted and taken postings using an ad-hoc study over three day period.

OK now let us ask are there any problems with this?

Claims concerning freecycling’s relationship to the height of Everest are totally meaningless. Landfill is measured in tons (or tonnes) which although a measurement of weight is most easily thought of as volume. Any relationship to Everest that might make any sense would surely talk in terms of volume. But are we to include all the foothills? Are we to start from Base Camp? If I might jest for a second, should we even include the rubbish left behind by the many climbers.

Trying to guesstimate tonnage of items freecycled is totally meaningless. Lots of items get offered that are never taken up, so are they could be a poor indicator. Wanteds again may be unsatisfied and could be a poor indicator. The best approach might be counting the number of taken posts. At least we know these have resulted in items not going to landfill.

Or do they? Think hard about what you would do with items if you did not freecycle them. Well your house may just end up being cluttered. Whoa, hold up, are you telling me that after all this freecycling your house is still cluttered? Does that mean that actually all you have done is make room to buy MORE items to fill your house with? If so then actually freecycling may actually be increasing landfill.

A good measure might be to examine a number of homes before and two years after they have been freecycling. Then measure how much less clutter is in these homes. Because if all we have done is allowed people to buy more rubbish from shops then is that a net gain that is worth a cent of tax payers money?

Let us ignore that and examine what I consider possibly the best indicator from a freecycling group. The number of taken posts. So, someone says they have taken some jam jars. How many jam jars, what size. And anyway these days jam jars are not sent to landfill. Hmm. Jam jars are a personal example because from one person I obtained a bag with, say 6 in. From another I obtained no less than 200. That is a big difference, it is a factor of 33 times larger.

One thing to be very careful of is that you cannot measure both OFFERs and TAKENs, since this would inevitably become double counting. One VERY key problem with measuring freecycling is that the only people who know anything about what is actually moved from one household to another is the offerer and the taker.

Another way of grossing things up might be to look at the number of members and say, oh lets say, 10 tons per person per year. Sorry, is that an exaggeration? Well there a number of problems with the number of members. Like a lot of discussion groups most people are lurkers. They do not offer, they do not take, they do not want. They just happen to be members. Unfortunately as the number members in the group goes up the number of lurkers goes up disproportionately.

Actually it is worse than that. To describe these members as lurkers is an exaggeration in itself. A lurker is primarily someone who watches and reads. Most members of freecycling groups never read a single post, this even more sad but more even true with the largest groups. You can see this with the decline in rise (now there’s a nice phrase) of the number of posts compared with the rise in the number of members. Just imagine, by way of contrast 15,000 people all posting every day onto a Yahoo discussion group forum. If this happened, even once, I think that Yahoo Groups would collapse in a heap, perhaps one the height of Everest.

And that’s my point. Trying to study a microcosm of freecycling and grossing it up to say so many tons of landfill have been saved is about as meaningful as saying that because a whale swallows up thousands of krill in one mouthful that therefore krill are an endangered species and that whales should be stopped from eating. It is true that krill are in danger, but no-one is disputing the whale’s right to chew on many mouthfuls, or that whales per se are the cause of that danger.

It is a lovely thing to play guesstimating games. But just remember to treat any such marketing claim is to dispose of it with a pinch of salt, and preferably the left one.


October 4, 2007 - Posted by | freecycle | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Andy:

    Another factor that needs to be considered is cross-posting. Here in Ottawa, ON Canada, we have more than 40 freecycle or freecycle-like groups. Many people are members of multiple groups and cross post on two or three or maybe as many as five or six different groups. So, when a fridge is “TAKEN”, the giver announces his/her success with as many as 5 or 6 taken messages on different groups. And often, they’ve given their item away to someone who responded from a Craigslist, Kijiji or cross posting. I know I certainly have.

    So, as you have said, guessing is pretty much a useless exercise, and more than a bit of skimble-skamble!

    Comment by Eric Snyder | July 24, 2009 | Reply

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