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The Craigslist Factor

The online bargain and giveaway site reduces the solid waste burden in areas where it's firmly established

Trash or treasure? The growth of Craigslist into hundreds of U.S. markets has helped reduce the amount of solid waste going to landfills.

The average American generates about 1,500 pounds of garbage annually, and then spends lots of tax dollars disposing of it.

Even as recycling has taken off across the country in recent decades, the volume of all this trash has kept growing — albeit at a slower pace.

Since I research how people are using the internet to reuse products, share resources, and generally make more sustainable choices, I decided to see whether Craigslist might be helping to at least slow the pace of solid waste growth.

New to you

Craigslist is the best-known website for buying and selling, or simply giving away, used stuff. Others include Freecycle, LetGo, Gumtree, and OLX.

Founded by Craig Newmark in 1995 in the San Francisco Bay Area, Craigslist rapidly expanded once internet access became widespread starting in 2000. It now operates in 413 U.S. metro regions the U.S. and the website draws more than 400 million visitors every month, mostly in North America.

People in just about all of the nation’s heavily populated areas, including Abilene, Texas; Rockford, Illinois; and Hartford, Connecticut, use Craigslist. But its arrival was staggered.

Furniture, clothing, and appliances are the most commonly exchanged items. But it’s also a system for ditching or obtaining everything from diapers to trucks.

In a study that I recently described in the journal Management Science, I looked at whether exchanging this stuff keeps it out of landfills and incinerators.

Specifically, I checked what happened in California, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, and South Carolina, five states with the best annual county-level solid waste data. Using statistical techniques, I contrasted what happened with solid waste rates in counties in those states after they became Craigslist hubs with what was going on in comparable places where it had not arrived yet.

I found that the volume of consumer-generated waste declines by 3% to 5% when Craigslist becomes active in an area. I also saw that this effect persisted for at least two or three years once local residents become more apt to reusing furniture, clothing, appliances, and other stuff that they bought through Craigslist.

Bigger and better garage sales

Craigslist is among the more successful pillars of what is commonly known as the circular economy — that is, efforts to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible.

Interestingly, it has counterparts that encourage exchanges and reduce waste within industries and in the business world. 2GoodtoWaste and the Materials Marketplace are two of more popular online industrial reuse marketplaces. The extent and variety of these listings can attract enough buyers to create markets for just about anything, from surplus chemicals to salvaged wood.

Craigslist and its business-world equivalents may seem to be nothing more than a gargantuan garage sale with a website. But this model has distinct advantages, as my study showed. The sheer number of listed items and people who list them is massive, boosting the chance that you might find something pretty similar to, if not exactly, what you need.

 

Suvrat Dhanorkar is assistant professor of supply chain management at Pennsylvania State University. This post originally appeared at The Conversation.

8 Comments

  1. user-6890838 | | #1

    THANK YOU, Suvrat, for some good news! As I contemplate the disaster that is consumer recycling: high contamination rate, energy intensive, soft market for recycled raw materials... I always come back to reduced consumption as the only way lick our waste problem. Next time maybe you can look at the impact on the purchase of new stuff as a result of the circular economy. I hope we're all not just cramming our houses full of used AND new stuff.

  2. Nick Welch | | #2

    Craigslist even has a building materials section. It's great. I've gotten a bunch of used rigid foam, cedar slabs for garden beds, free flooring for entire rooms, a Panasonic ERV for 1/3 its normal price, and all kinds of other stuff for projects.

    1. User avater
      Dana Dorsett | | #3

      For many types of things that's where I look first for home projects, followed by the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

      Last week I picked up a 9' long x 10" tall cast iron baseboard radiator on Craigslist for a room I'm micro-zoning. At $150 it wasn't the best used-radiator deal I've ever made (it was one of the worst, actually), but still $350 less than a shiny new one (even before shipping.) I measured carefully to make sure it would actually fit in the Prius before scooping it up. :-) A fin-tube baseboard from a box store of comparable output would have been a lot less money, but also less comfortable, more fragile.

  3. Zane Bridgers | | #4

    Interesting read! I am a big proponent! We sourced all of our windows and one entry door from craigslist as well as numerous tools, scaffolding, ladders, and other odds and ends for the construction of our house. One trick we learned with the windows was to look for people (often contractors or window manufacture reps) who have mis-measured new stock. We got 10 new windows, all energy star, many 6' or greater including two big arch windows for under $1500. Windows tend to go bad in our region so new is important here. I've also had great luck coordinating 5+ craigslist transactions over the course of a day - I try to communicate very clearly and honestly, give my phone number and do any negotiating up front over text or the phone so there are no surprises. It's an amazing resource and obviously great form of recycling.

  4. Jay S | | #5

    Craigslist is actually international. I've shopped for apartments in Mexico. It's absolutely indispensable if you're a renter. It has devastated your local paper, though, by obsoleting the classified ads and their revenue.

  5. Kevin Camfield | | #6

    I have used it recently to give things away. We tore down a small 1940's cabin to make room for our new house. We were able to give away the kitchen cabinets, the bathroom vanity, the closet doors, the baseboard heater, the electrical meter base and 200A service and some of the newer vinyl windows. All of the furniture we couldn't reuse went to our Local Habitat for Humanity. We actually tried to give away the whole cabin on CL and had several people interested. The problem we ran into was that we live at the bottom of a steep hill and none of the house moving companies could figure out how to move it cost effectively.

    I have found that giving the items away saves me money, keeps them out of the land fill, and is really pretty rewarding. I have had some really appreciative people tell me how much it meant to them. One man living on social security took the time to share just how much that old baseboard heater was going to change his quality of life!

  6. Bryce Nesbitt | | #7

    The graph is interesting, but unconvincing. The trend line before CL is similar to that after. Could you post a comparison showing the effect of staggered launch of CL?

    1. Trevor Lambert | | #8

      Agreed. Unless I'm missing something, this graph is evidence of the exact opposite of what is being proposed. It strongly suggests Craigslist has had no effect whatsoever on solid waste.

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