From Trash to Treasure

King County, Wash.'s Online Exchange keeps trash out of landfills by allowing residents to sell usable household items to eager re-consumers.

by / September 3, 2003
It's fairly obvious we live in a throwaway society. Clothing is discarded at the drop of a hemline, appliances are tossed aside with old color schemes, computers become obsolete before you can say gigabyte, and why hang onto an old car when the new models are so much ... newer?

America's unprecedented affluence and material evanescence keep consumer consumption levels rising, and unfortunately, landfill levels doing the same.

These days, waste management is a major concern for most communities in the United States. But in King County, Wash. -- home to Seattle and 36 other cities and unincorporated areas -- officials have gone high-tech to minimize the amount of refuse in their landfills.

Since April 1, the King County Online Exchange has offered county residents an opportunity to advertise free and low-cost items over the Internet, in the hope that their junk will become someone else's treasure.

"The whole idea is to keep inexpensive items that probably would have ended up at the landfill out of the landfill," said Jay Beach, project/program manager for King County's Waste Reduction and Recycling Section. "The thing is, it's inviting because it's free."

There is no charge to post goods on the exchange. In fact, items listed are often free for the taking. King County residents simply log onto the site and complete a short registration process to advertise virtually any household item for any price under $99.

Odd Assortment
Items are grouped in numerous categories including appliances, clothing, computer hardware and software, sporting goods, televisions, and miscellaneous.

Anyone can peruse the site and its odd assortment of items -- lizard cages, wedding dresses and elk antlers, to name a few -- but only King County residents are allowed to post items.

The idea for the site developed as a variation on a previous success.

For many years, King County has had a similar online Reusable Building Materials Exchange. That site is directed specifically at homebuilders and remodelers with leftover supplies.

"It's been insanely popular for years," said Beach. "It's consistently rated one of the top Web sites in King County."

The idea for the residential exchange began evolving about three years ago.

"Our landfills are at capacity," said Beach. "It didn't make sense to keep letting usable household materials make it into the waste stream."

In fact, the United States leads the world in production of municipal solid waste (MSW) -- common garbage consisting of items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint and batteries.

On average, every person in the United States produces 4.62 pounds of garbage a day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

On the bright side, however, the United States also leads the industrial world in recycling. Currently about 28 percent of the nation's MSW is recovered and recycled or composted, 15 percent is burned at combustion facilities, and the remaining 57 percent is disposed of in landfills.

With more than half of all MSW still finding its way into landfills, many cities and counties are looking for ways to reduce their growing waste heaps. King County's exchange is actually a new-age kind of recycling project with any usable household item finding new life not as a different object, but rather as the same object with a different owner.

Low Overhead
When county officials finally decided to go ahead with their project, Beach contacted a Cold Fusion programmer in nearby British Columbia to design a program to facilitate the site.

"It was just one guy," Beach said. "It's not like he was associated with a software company, so it was almost free."

In fact, the county's original contract with the programmer was for only $1,300, and maintenance costs now run only the amount of time it takes Beach to monitor the system -- generally about 3 hours each week.

"And it should stay that way," Beach said. "I can't really see why it would go up at all."

The site is specifically geared toward inexpensive items that might otherwise be thrown onto the county's growing refuse heap. "It wouldn't serve our purpose to list a $5,000 car, because that car isn't going to end up in a landfill," Beach explained.

For items worth more than $99, the site provides links to local newspaper classified ads. "We don't want to conflict with the newspapers," he said.

Still there are those who attempt to use the free service to sell expensive items. Some have typed $99 in the price box only to include a substantially higher price in the item description.

But Beach said the number of site abusers is minimal, and regular visitors to the exchange who get angry over such antics often alert Beach to offending ads. "Then I can go to it and just pull their entry or call them and say, 'Hey knock it off,' or just blacklist them," he said.

An objectionable word filter further helps Beach monitor the site, which is otherwise largely self-regulated. Messages containing certain words such as "wanted" are flagged for inspection and deletion if necessary. "We don't want want-ads," Beach said.

But for the most part, such actions are unnecessary, with most users simply interested in finding new homes for a decidedly eclectic assortment of no-longer-needed items.

Quick Results
Shelly Hollowell of Renton, Wash., didn't want to lug a band-sized wooden stage to her new home, so she offered it for free on the exchange.

"It was easy," Hollowell said. "I was surprised to get three callers in the first few days." The stage was picked up a few days later, and Hollowell said she would definitely use the exchange in the future.

Despite the many happy exchanges and exchangers -- the site now has nearly 270 registered users and has listed about 700 items -- there are still some who are not completely satisfied with the system.

Larry Strong, who advertised a set of eight 5-inch carved statues of "Chinese immortals" on the site called his experience frustrating. "There were bugs in the system," he said without elaborating.

Unable to sell his unusual set after two weeks, Strong said he would keep his listing posted for a while then try on bulletin boards at local supermarkets and other free local online ads. "If it doesn't sell, it will go to St. Vincent's," he said.

Despite the fact that his first experience with the system was not perfect, Strong said he would probably use the exchange again.

Because it has been in use for only a few months, Beach said it is difficult to determine if the exchange is helping ease landfill overflow. "It's hard to quantify something like that. You can't really say how many pounds were kept out of the landfill," he said. "But it's on the upswing."

Whether or not the exchange actually reduces the amount of household rubbish clogging already congested landfills, Beach said he knows the Web site is a hit with King County residents.

"Oh, they love it," he said. "It's really cool."
Kris Middaugh Staff Writer