Buy Nothing groups aren't just about exchanging free stuff for SF residents – SFGATE

These online SF communities are like Nextdoor, minus the drama.
When the pandemic began escalating in March 2020 and San Francisco locked down, Rossana Li was feeling pretty lonely. She lived by herself and between the stay-at-home order and most of her friends living outside the city, her sense of community had disappeared.
Like many of us do when we’re bored, she turned to Facebook and started browsing her local “Buy Nothing” group based in the Mission. She saw someone offering their help to anyone who needed yard work done. She’d always dreamt of fixing up her backyard, but never had the help or the time and figured she’d take a chance. The following Saturday, 10 people showed up and the group worked together and “completely transformed her space,” pulling weeds and doing general clean up. “It was amazing. I was meeting people and yet, we were able to stay distanced and safe,” Li said. “I never would have gotten the [yard] work done since it was such a big task. But with so many people, it went by so fast and it was so fun…It was a nice, sort of organic way to meet neighbors I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”
Buy Nothing groups are established on behalf of a national organization called the Buy Nothing Project, which offers people a framework to establish their own hyper-local gift economy in their neighborhood. While “buy” is in the name, it’s not all about giving away stuff for free. It’s about giving and receiving skills and time as well, and perhaps most importantly, getting to know your neighbors.
Li was so thankful for the group’s help that day, she later offered that newly cleaned space back to the community as a little thank you gathering. Today, she said people know her as a plant lady, since she’s often giving away plants, and she’s utilized the group to do everything from give away succulent cutting to move her TV to declutter her apartment. “It’s been uplifting in a time when a lot of us don’t have that uplifting community normally,” Li said. “You don’t even have that same interaction with your barista or the grocery store clerk anymore.”
Those are exactly the types of interactions that friends Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark hoped to foster when they created the first Buy Nothing group in Bainbridge Island, WA in July, 2013 — it was always more about the community than the stuff. “It’s like the village model. If you were living in a tight community and you knew everybody you would take care of each other,” Clark said. “Looking the other way was becoming too easy. We weren’t knowing who was living right next to us.”
Just this week, the duo announced they’re planning on creating their own app to host Buy Nothing groups, allowing those that don’t want to use Facebook a way to participate. Named ShareThing, they hope the app will debut by spring, allowing its more than 1.5 million participants in 6,000 groups across 44 countries a new way to share beyond the typical neighborhood confines.
Currently, all official Buy Nothing groups are designated by a neighborhood or neighborhood grouping and typically have around 1,000 members, but that doesn’t mean others haven’t popped up with a similar sentiment. “Buy Nothing (SF Families)” is a popular SF group with 13,000 members, and focuses on the community of families with children within the city. Another more general group, “Buy Nothing (San Francisco),” focuses on the entirety of the city and boasts 25,000 members. The group is so active that popular items, including everything from bicycles to electronics, get claimed within minutes.
And it’s addicting. I find myself checking the group multiple times a day, wondering if that office chair looks more comfortable than the one I’m sitting in. Or maybe I need those handmade Thai chopsticks in silk sleeves, since I’ve been meaning to buy my own chopsticks so I can start refusing the reusable ones. And while I’ve resisted buying a printer out of principle, maybe it’s OK if it’s free?
Before I know it I’m digging in the box of “Goodwill” stuff in my garage, determining which may be good for the group to give away. Plus, I don’t have to drive to Goodwill. An extra yoga mat, an old alarm clock, a giant cutting board that doesn’t fit in any of my cabinets and an extra dog leash are all picked up within 48 hours through contactless “porch pickup” from my house in Glen Park.
Plus, all the feel-good “gratitude posts” are the pick-me-up I didn’t know I so desperately needed mid-day. A woman shows off the shirt she made using the free sewing machine she got through the group. Another shows off the takeout containers full of food she plans to deliver to neighbors.
Julia Pfeiffenberger started the Buy Nothing San Francisco group five years ago when she was pregnant. She knew she had to get a lot of stuff in preparation for her daughter, but she knew she didn’t need to buy it all brand new. She had some luck with her neighborhood Buy Nothing group, but felt it was time to start a larger group for the whole city. “It’s been awesome, not only for giving away items and deterring them from a landfill, but because of the amazing community that’s been built.”
She said especially in times of need like the recent wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, the community really rallies together, creating hygiene kits for those that are unhoused or cooking Thanksgiving meal kits for families in need. While that’s not the group’s main intent, it can feel like a safer space to organize than places like Nextdoor or Craigslist.
The spirit of giving even more than that old toaster oven gathering dust in your garage can be infectious. Kerby Lau, a member of Buy Nothing San Francisco, was giving away so much stuff in the San Francisco group in the fall, he started asking people to drop off nonperishable food when they came to pick up their items from his garage as an impromptu Thanksgiving food drive. He said he collected more than 600 cans of food and more than 100 lbs of rice and pasta that he eventually gave to people in need.
The San Francisco firefighter said he usually does quite a bit of traveling in the summer, and when that couldn’t happen because of the pandemic, he “spring cleaned” his house and his parent’s house and gave away everything in the group. Then, he found himself casing the streets for discarded furniture and other perfectly good “trash” left on street corners, which he would fix up, clean up or just generally gather in his garage and then post it on the group for people to pick up for free.  He said he’s happy to give away these things since he’s lucky enough to have a good job during these tough economic times. “The thing that makes me most happy is when people send me a picture of what I’ve given them in their home,” Lau said. “It melts my heart.”
Lau said he’s consistently helping a few families that have lost jobs during the pandemic, even giving his cans to a couple that makes money on collecting them for recycling.
A lifelong San Franciscan, he said he’s just thankful to be able to help. Plus, he said he’s also made a few friends through the community that he doesn’t think he’d have ever met otherwise.
Li said the idea of free stuff brings people into the groups, but they ultimately stay because of the newfound connections. “Maybe it’s a small one to two minute interaction or maybe it’s a 30 minutes conversation,” Li said. “It can really brighten your life, especially right now.”
Tessa is a Local Editor for SFGATE. Before joining the team in 2019, she specialized in food, drink and lifestyle content for numerous publications including, The Bold Italic, 7×7 and more. Contact her at


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