On Hornby Island, British Columbia, we were introduced to The Free Store – more than just a free thrift store it’s actually a massive systematic recycling and reuse operation. Started in 1978, the island now diverts 70% of the trash that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. Take a look at the video to see the free store and next level recycling in action along with our reflections.
There are only about 1000 residents on Hornby during low season while we were there but as the sun peeked out more and more, the bustle of “downtown” increased dramatically. Still, The Free Store is open on weekends during non-peak season and since we arrived just before the weekend and stayed ten days, we were able to participate in a full recycling and reuse cycle and benefitted greatly. There was a high chair in great condition sitting outside the store when we arrived. A local approached us and asked, “Do you like it? Do you need it?…Then its yours.” With a strange feeling of loading up goods we did not pay for, we left with a replacement hat, a massive puzzle, a few baby toys, and the highchair. The day we left, Tory cleaned up the toys and highchair and we dropped them off again along with the puzzle that occupied us for many evenings! We also donated some baby clothes that Camille had grown out of along the way and Tory took our week’s worth of trash through the entire recycling system leaving only a small plastic bag of actual trash for two families with babies.
The Mission of the Hornby Island Recycling Program is:
– To maintain and operate a waste diversion and recycling facility, including a “Free Store”, for the benefit of island residents, visitors, local businesses and the environment.
– To operate the Hornby Island Recycling Depot in a fiscally responsible manner where cost effectiveness is based on a full accounting of costs and benefits, both monetary and non-monetary.
– To promote community education and support for continued waste reduction, reuse and recycling toward the goal of zero waste
Not only does the free store massively reduce the amount of landfill waste leaving the island, it also becomes an extremely efficient mechanism for maximizing the utility of consumer goods. The “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” takes on new meaning as you walk the isles of the free store. Questions of affordability and waste evaporate into musings on how an old strap might make a good replacement for a lost hammock strap or how a free puzzle might be the perfect way to enjoy the rainy portions of our vacation. I would never find myself in a check out lane with a puzzle in the cart and yet over the course of the week, we borrowed and returned two. To observe our own thoughts switch from a mentality of scarcity to a feeling of connection and generosity left us both feeling liberated and really fostered a sense of well-being…that there is truly enough if we do not all need to own and hoard every new gadget and and holiday must have gift ideas. The ability to contribute quality items of our own to the collective pool was liberating as well. The more we gave away, the less we needed to pack and travel with while knowing that several families will likely benefit from baby clothes that could likely cycle through five or six children before needing to convert to its second life as a rag.
I once saw a short film called Plastic Bag where Warner Herzog played the voice of a personified plastic bag. The film follows the bag’s brief life as a grocery carrier and second life as a dog poop bag. The film was surprisingly effective and I ended up identifying with a bag. When I think about the Free Store, I think of the items arriving on Hornby Island as lucky because it is likely that whatever item it might be; a bottle, a coat hanger, a baby seat, or a puzzle, it is likely that it will live a long and useful life that provides joy and utility to more people. The incentive structure makes good sense and could even generate wealth or at least sustain itself if organized correctly. It is not hard to imagine a model like this working in communities around the world.
We believe that individuals will make good decisions with how they consume and dispose of waste more thoughtfully if a good format exists – something the Free Store offers us freely.