We all have things we don’t need. For Canberra resident Zoe Bowman, it is melon ballers.
“Someone asked for a melon baller to make some melon balls for a kid’s party, and I looked in the drawer and I had three,” she says. “I don’t need three melon ballers!”
The request was made on a Facebook page that she manages, one of the thousands of local pages that make up the “buy nothing” movement.
Part zero-waste movement, part community-building project, “buy nothing” has taken off in Australia’s affluent inner-city suburbs as a way to rehome unwanted goods and avoid unnecessary purchases – like a third melon baller.
“It gives people something to do before immediately consuming,” says Bowman.
But acquiring and dispatching stuff is not the main aim. The most common mistake new initiates make when added to a “buy nothing” group on Facebook is to give their goods away to the first person who comments, rather than waiting until a number of people have put their hand up and making a selection.
The “buy nothing” project began in the United States as an attempt at creating a cashless economy, inspired by a trip one of its founders took to Nepal. The aim was that communities would distribute goods according to need, which meant group members had to explain why they needed a particular item in order to receive it. It was a slightly problematic beginning, says Bowman, and the secret Facebook group where “buy nothing” page admins gather has since gone through a decolonisation and anti-racism process that led to it losing some of its original fans.
In Australia the tone is lighter but the rules remain.
Giving an item away to the first person who replies, like you would on a buy/swap/sell page, is far too transactional for the “buy nothing” community. If a person has something to give away, they are expected to keep their post up for a number of hours to leave time for most members of the group to see it and state their interest. The gifter can then draw names out of a hat, or – two popular methods – give the item away to the person who posts the cutest photo of their pet or makes the best lame joke. Soliciting or offering money in exchange for goods or services will get you banned (but trades are acceptable), posting about lost pets is discouraged, and politics is outlawed.
“The whole aim of the thing is actually community building, not getting rid of stuff,” Bowman says.
In a world where people rarely know their neighbours, a “buy nothing” page is a way to get on nodding acquaintance with the people living on your street. It is a village mentality, fostered on Facebook. And as villagers will, both behaviour and membership is strictly policed.
Bowman, a page admin, is one of those who does the policing, although she says she adopts a policy of “benevolent neglect” rather than strictly enforcing the movement’s complex rules.
Once a group gets too big, usually more than 1,000 or 1,500 members, it is split into smaller and smaller subdivisions. You cannot be a member of more than one page. When Bowman joined her group in Canberra, it covered a sixth of the city. Now it covers just three suburbs: Aranda, Cook and Macquarie. The aim is always to make the groups as hyper-local as possible.
“Canberra is very, very on it,” she says. “I don’t know that there’s anywhere in the world that has the ‘buy nothing’ density that we have here, and I think that’s because Canberra is a pretty left-leaning, progressive place.”
It is also very middle class, a common feature of suburbs where “buy nothing” groups abound.
Marie Coleman’s group has also split several times and now covers just two Canberra suburbs, Watson and Hackett.
She recently turned to the group in the hope of acquiring a round grill tray from a barbecue to stop the birds from eating the fish out of her pond. She had been using an old shelf from a refrigerator, found at the back of the shed, but says it was “hardly aesthetic”. She offered hellebore seedlings as a trade.
“I had two responses … one was a woman who said: I make garden sculptures out of wire, I’d be happy to make one for you,” she says. “I thought, that’s a very kind offer.
“I’m just struck by the extent to which it is developing the local neighbourhood network.”
Bowman has become friends with some people she regularly corresponds with in the group. It’s also a way to find temporary solutions to otherwise expensive problems.
“A friend of mine, her mum was coming over last Christmas and was going to be here for six weeks,” she says. “She managed to borrow furniture to turn her dining room into a bedroom for her mother and then at the end of the six weeks returned it or regifted it.”
I told Bowman that my brother-in-law, also a “buy nothing” devotee, once posted a request on his local group in Perth to borrow a table saw and a neighbour with a lot of woodworking tools agreed. This led to one of the most exciting mornings of my nephew’s life: while his dad cut out the shelves, Hugo, a keen vacuumer, was allowed to use the large sawdust vacuum.
“That is so wholesome!” she says. “That is what ‘buy nothing’ is about.”
Perth’s monied inner north has a “buy nothing” density that rivals Canberra. Anton Schirripa is a member of one of four groups covering the suburb of North Perth.
He has since moved, but says his parents have lived in North Perth since before it was gentrified. Now, the suburb is “very white middle-class, mid- to late-30s, single-income houses with the income equivalent of a double income kind of thing,” he says.
Before Schirripa moved to Broome a few years ago, he was able to acquire a new fridge. He also got four tickets to a Missy Higgins concert.
Broome does not have a “buy nothing” page, it has a buy/sell page where racism abounds. Schirripa, a Ngarrabul man, says he did not encounter racism in the “buy nothing” community, but adds: “It’s hard for me to know that as a white-passing middle-class white-colour worker. I don’t know what it would be like if you didn’t fit into what people approved of in the community.”
The “buy nothing” community exists in a comfortable and trusting bubble, he says. People recognise each other by name and leave their back gates unlocked for people to come and collect what they need. When Schirripa went to collect a clock from one woman in the group, she realised he was moving to Broome with minimal furniture and gave him a spare coffee table.
Despite the group’s good intentions, Schirripa says he finds some elements a little weird. Take food, for instance. Half-used jars of condiments are often posted, and eagerly snapped up.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything on the North Perth one not be snatched up,” he says. “And nothing against North Perth people but I think that’s how rich people stay rich, they will take anything for free. That’s the vibe that I get when I see people saying ‘Oh this salsa is too spicy’, and people are like ‘I’ll definitely take that!’ It’s like, why?”
Gemma Hardie has noticed the same phenomenon in her group, which covers the Melbourne suburbs of Elwood and St Kilda. In some cases, she says, the desire not to throw things out can override common sense.
“You can’t give stuff that’s crap,” she says.
Hardie joined the page to reduce her consumption. “We just consume so much stuff as a society and often don’t think about where it comes from. But I reckon only a small proportion of the members in the group share that philosophy.”
There’s also an ethical question, she says, of whether usable second-hand goods should be circulated in this “decidedly middle-class” invitation-only community or gifted to places where they are actually needed.
“I think people who are properly in need and could really benefit from a group like that don’t join,” she says.
There is no “buy nothing” group covering the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, where Danielle Chubb lives. Instead, she and others in surrounding suburbs use a group called Zero Waste Freebies. It’s Melbourne-wide, but because of the “buy nothing” vacuum in her local area, most regular users live nearby. It’s more strictly environmental in ethos than a “buy nothing” group.
“If I have got 16 egg cartons, someone will want them because they are really passionate about recycling,” she says.
The page also functions as a kind of hard waste spotter’s guide. Chubb posts photos of things that have been put out on the verge for collection by the council, in case someone in the group has a use for them. That’s how she acquired a new reel for her garden hose, which she had been trying not to buy new.
“There’s people you see all the time posting and you realise you have shared ideas about things and you live in the same area, and it’s nice,” she says. “I don’t know these people in real life but I know who they are … there is a nice community feeling about it.”