They started as a way of doing the right thing by vulnerable neighbours during the pandemic: WhatsApp groups asking if anybody along the street needs help, for example with shopping.
A year and a half later, these community groups continue to thrive and have evolved into a means of swapping and sharing goods – offering everything from spare dog food to a free car.
James Riley, a member of the Brockwell Park Gardens and Trinity Rise WhatsApp group in south London, thinks sharing with neighbours is a sign that people want to keep the community spirit alive. “You would imagine people would try to sell these items but there is a spirit of trying to keep it in the community,” he says.
He adds that “anything and everything” is offered in the group, including plants, mirrors and windows. And this spirit of giving is down to Covid, which he says “made people feel more connected to neighbours”.
“It goes really fast. Someone put a car on there that they no longer drove. It was in really good condition. That is amazing,” Riley says. “Someone was also giving away an Aga recently, although I think they wanted a little bit of money for it.”
It’s a picture mirrored across the country: community connections made in the peak of the pandemic helping to create unofficial swap shops. This sharing culture has exploded since the onset of coronavirus, according to a pre-WhatsApp website dedicated to giving away items for free. Postings on the Freecycle Network, a non-profit platform started in 2003, increased by 50% in June 2020 , its executive director Deron Beal has revealed.
“This held into the autumn. Then last winter, when communities locked down, members shifted to essential items like hanging homemade masks on a ‘gifting tree’ or leaving essential supplies out front for others to pick up,” he says, adding that information on vaccination centres and testing sites has also been shared.
Beal puts the rise in use of the platform down to “compassion and a desire for the community”.
Judy Bell, 69, a retired headteacher from Wolverhampton who now teaches English as a foreign language on a voluntary basis, used Freecycle differently during the lockdown. “It became more and more apparent that the asylum seekers to whom I continued to teach English were having a very hard time sourcing items that would make their lives more bearable,” she says. “So I started putting ‘asks’ on their behalf on various local freecycle and zero-waste sites. I was blown away by the responses I had.
“I managed to find three bicycles for a single-parent family from Morocco … a sewing machine and lots of fabric for a keen needlewoman from El Salvador.”
In fact, she was offered so many items that she had to start signposting people to other organisations. “I have to say that the generosity has continued,” she says. “What started during lockdown has become firmly embedded in the attitudes of members of the local freecycle groups.”
Amina Abu-Shahba, 43, also turned to Freecycle during lockdown, setting up a swap shop in Swansea. She says: “I figured I would get a few friends together, and before I knew it the group was nearly 5,000-strong. It’s become something much bigger than just keeping things out of landfills, it has become a community and a source of support for women across the city. So far we’ve swapped over 25,000 items, raised money for charities and had a lot of unexpected events along the way.
“Lockdown has played a factor because a lot of people were looking for connection and purpose. Some people have stood out as active members, but generally the community is just regularly helping each other and generously gifting items for no personal gain – well, perhaps for a tidier cupboard.”