CityViews: How NYers’ Old Stuff Can Create a More Sustainable City

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Jacquelyn Ottman

A free box that pays off.

When I put a ‘Free Stuff’ box in the laundry room of my apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan last year, I wasn’t thinking about the larger idea of holding a live swap event with my neighbors and what that could mean for us as a community. I was simply focused on how much waste we could reduce by exchanging gently used articles with each other—silently, anonymously via a 3′ x 2′ x 2′ box. Perfectly decent mixing bowls, vases, picture frames, small articles of clothing, even pretty purses and costume jewelry—you know, the typical kinds of items one finds in a thrift shop — would be intercepted before they hit the trash. Neighbors and even their housekeepers and our building staff who visit the laundry room could avail themselves of free stuff – after all, who doesn’t like free stuff? And I would feel good that I made it all happen.

Then a light went off in my head…

Although a Free Stuff box can certainly help keep stuff out of landfills, it can provide other sustainability benefits as well, starting with the obvious, enhancing economic resilience. Turn it into a live Swap event and even social benefits like community-building kick in. The possibilities may be endless.

Some of this is already happening at Stop ‘N’ Swap® events being run in all five boroughs, but I suspect even more can be done in the interest of promoting sustainability, especially in underserved neighborhoods. Stop ‘N’ Swap are free community ‘Zero Waste’ events run by GrowNYC, a not-for-profit funded by the NYC Department of Sanitation. Started in 2011, they have been so successful, 45 events are planned for this year, with more slated for next. Happily, many of these events already occur in NYC-based housing projects.

For the entire two-and-a-half hours that community members pile in with their overstuffed shopping bags while others happily stream out laden down with newly found treasures—there’s no limit to how much you can take and it’s all for free—the folks who run the Stop ‘N’ Swap greet, weigh, sort, hang, display and eventually help pack all the items carefully laid out on tables marked ‘Men’s Clothes’ ‘Womens Clothes’ ‘Toys’ ‘Books’ ‘Media’ and even ‘WildCard’.

I went to my first Stop ‘N’ Swap on Saturday, March 21. It was held in the cafeteria of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a not-for-profit located in one of largest underserved areas of the country. While there, I was welcomed by Kathleen Crosby and Victoria Dearborn, who manage the events together with a small army of 15 volunteers. To their credit, the event was well-promoted to community members, many of whom seem to have come before. Women (mostly) arrived with bags full of clothing, shoes, knick-knacks, toys, DVDs and CDs, books and other miscellaneous items.

Everything flew off the tables moments after they were quickly restocked. Some items still had tags attached, like the little pink knitted ‘pussy-type’ hat I picked up for my granddaughter. One middle-aged woman excitedly snatched up a brass menorah — she claimed it was her first. Another swapper found several items she intended to pass along as gifts to neighbors and godchildren.

Amidst all the swapping and smiles I couldn’t help but wonder about the many ways that a community-based swap event like this one could help to to promote sustainability.

Is it possible that even more swap events could be run at NYC public housing developments, and even subsidized housing all over the country where they are so sorely needed?

What about evolving Stop ‘N’ Swaps from ‘all purpose’ events to ones that concentrate on single items, like just children’s clothes and toys, or just kitchen items, or possibly just food, making it that much easier for folks like busy moms to find stuff of value?

And while we’re thinking expansively, why not try to figure out how to ‘swap’ the skills and expertise of community neighbors — and even pass them on to their kids? Could future community swap events feature ‘skill swap’ tables where folks could share their knitting, cooking, sewing, fixing, DIYing, painting and plastering skills that could help empower other folks to be more independent and economically resilient? (Stop ‘N’ Swaps meet Repair Cafes, anyone?)

Teaching each other to repair stuff promotes social connections within a community. Serving refreshments, and providing even a modest space to allow swappers to take a load off, could help build community too.

I was delighted to learn from Kathleen and Victoria that they are being asked to share their best practices by individuals, schools and community organizations looking to host their own events. When more neighborhoods all around the city, the country, and even the globe set up community swap events of their own, look for a flood of creative ideas as they customize their events to their local needs, excess items, and culture!

Mountains of gently used items seem to exist everywhere these days. With a little luck, swapping stuff — and stories and even a cup of coffee — could one day replace shopping as a national pastime. (I am reminded by the Saturday greenmarket my aunt and uncle looked forward to going to with friends in Sarasota Florida. They’d get a muffin and coffee and make a morning of it.)

So, what can potentially replace the mall as a focal point for community can start in a humble cafeteria like the Stop ‘N’ Swap I attended, or be sparked by a Free Stuff box located in a laundry room, foyer, or other well-trafficked space.

Live in or near NYC and want to drop off or pick up some free stuff at a GrowNYC Stop ‘N’ Swap event? Want tips on how to host a successful swap event in your own community? Upcoming Stop ‘N’ Swaps are planned for Bensonhurst (Apr 8), Downtown Brooklyn (April 20), Mott Haven (April 22), Castle Hill (April 29) and Upper West Side (April 30). Click here for a calendar of upcoming events and more information.

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Jacquelyn Ottman is a native New Yorker, green marketing pioneer, author, and founder of focused on promoting zero waste as the basis of a new consumption ethic. She is also the Secretary of the Solid Waste Advisory Board to the Manhattan Borough President. Views expressed here are her own. She can be reached at info[at]

4 thoughts on “CityViews: How NYers’ Old Stuff Can Create a More Sustainable City

  1. Thanks for this informative article and kudos to Jacquie Ottman for her insight reporting. I will take stuff to the Upper Westside event April 30th and let others know to do the same.

  2. What a fantastic idea! Finding the nexus of social, environmental, and economic sustainability is always such a challenge. But the Stop ‘N’ Swap model really has potential to do just that. I’m very excited to attend one of the next upcoming Stop ‘N’ Swap events. What young professional doesn’t love free stuff?

  3. “Kathleen and Victoria that they are being asked to share their best practices by individuals, schools and community organizations looking to host their own events. ” Can you please post their ‘best practices’ tips; I’d like to try this in Virginia!

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