By Dr Madeline Taylor & Paige Street, Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice, Queensland University of Technology

In 2023, the Australian federal government made a bold commitment: achieving a circular economy by 2030. This ambitious goal reflects the fact that millions of tonnes of usable products are currently ending up in Australian landfills and as a result, local councils are bearing increasing financial and logistical strain from this waste, and citizens are struggling with mounting costs of living and increasing confusion on waste, reuse and recycling messaging. But any transition to a circular economy requires not just policy changes and technological advancements, but a fundamental reorientation of our relationship with products, our communities, and the planet itself.

While discussions on sustainability often revolve around large-scale technology-driven solutions, there’s a quieter revolution happening in our neighbourhoods. Informal practices of circularity are proving to be powerful motors of change, offering a glimpse into a more sustainable future.

One example of this is the Buy Nothing Project, a global network of local gift-giving communities that has rapidly gained momentum in Australia. Originating in the USA in 2013, the Buy Nothing Project has rapidly expanded, boasting over 7.5 million members in approximately 7,000 local Facebook groups worldwide.

In Australia alone, there are at least 500 active Buy Nothing Project groups, spreading from Burnie to the Barossa, Mukinbudin to Townsville, demonstrating the widespread appeal of this grassroots movement. Our recent study investigated two groups in the Brisbane City Council area and shed light on the transformative potential of these communities. What emerged was a portrait of ordinary citizens engaging in extraordinary acts of sustainability and community building.

As we see it, the Buy Nothing Project, and similar digital gift economies, for example the Good Karma network popular in suburban Melbourne, have significant potential to align broader council sustainability goals to the very ordinary practices of neighbourly generosity, hand-me-downs and hyperlocal sharing that are already embedded in the everyday culture of Australia.

The groups promise tangible benefits for community wellbeing, waste reduction and provide avenues for citizen education. This article shares actionable recommendations for local councils to identify, support and harness the potential of hyperlocal gifting in their area.

What is the buy nothing project?

Formal and informal practices of product reuse, gifting and sharing exist in many forms around Australia. Popular platforms such as Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace facilitate commercial exchanges among strangers and traditions of reuse and hand-me-downs among family, friends and neighbours have always been a way for communities to support each other.

Two distinct features make the Buy Nothing Project unique: one, that it is facilitated digitally through closed groups on Facebook which are organised within a specific hyper-local area, such as a few or even just one suburb. Second, the products that are passed along through the groups are given for free, that is, they are gifted.

The groups activate a healthy local economy based on generosity and kindness, responding to two problems of modern life: waste and social isolation. The groups are currently popular in urban and suburban areas, with Perth alone hosting 145 groups across its 350 suburbs. The great thing is that anyone can set one up. Volunteer ‘admins’ are responsible for upholding the values of the Buy Nothing Project and group members can ‘gift’ items they no longer use or ‘ask’ for something they need.

Our study revealed that the groups also facilitate shared tools or equipment libraries, travelling suitcases for clothing, and offer more specific services such as collective dump runs, weeding or skills development. Members are encouraged to gift with no strings attached, though our research has shown that the social bonds fostered through the groups offer a strong opportunity to increase community wellbeing via local network building and the positive feelings fostered by altruism.

While many people join the groups with the intention of contributing to a sustainable future, their involvement also fulfills immediate and practical needs for community connection, financial savings or just getting free stuff. Through the stories shared by the Buy Nothing Project group members we spoke to, we saw that participation in the movement fluctuated with the needs of everyday life – through parenthood, natural disasters, the pandemic and evolving personal values.

These dynamics underscore the nuanced motivations behind sustainable behaviours and offer valuable insights for councils seeking to promote a circular economy. In our interviews with Buy Nothing Project members, it was clear the groups also served as a convenient and responsible way to pass on their used items, with members saying, “One thing

I particularly like about Buy Nothing is that it makes it really easy for me to find and recirculate things.” Home décor, kitchen essentials, clothing, and kids’ items were the categories most often featured, but all sorts of items are shared and asked for, from the unexpected such as a chicken’s waistcoat, to generous offers of laptops and quad bikes, to mundane gifts of glass jars and compost.

One member revealed that even products that are broken or tattered get taken, stating “I’m quite impressed by how people refashion things or use things that I would never have thought to be reusable. It’s definitely interesting watching and learning.”

Reducing and educating on household waste

Concern for waste was high among group members we talked to, and many cited reducing their household rubbish as a primary goal of membership. Our analysis of the type of items in the Facebook groups revealed that the Buy Nothing Project primarily helps to divert products from general waste.

With the cost of waste collection, landfilling and hard rubbish disposal an increasing burden for local councils, helping to facilitate reuse within neighbourhoods is a clear opportunity. These groups aren’t just about exchanging goods – they’re catalysts for a shift in mindset and behaviour. One member we talked to initially joined to get free stuff but found herself embracing the core values of the Buy Nothing Project over time. She now “hates seeing things go to waste” and cited the group as a reason for her increased awareness about waste and over-consumption.

Another said “Being part of the group has massively changed what I think about or how I value waste. I’m really looking at what we put in the bin and thinking about, does that have a use? I’m being way more mindful about what I buy as well”. To support this, group admins tended to play an educational role, with one admin noting that their posts “were more about educating people”.

The accessibility of the groups, the fact that people are regularly exposed to ideas of reuse via their social media feed, and its others in their community are easy to identify with sharing these ideas, make this a simple and ideal way for citizens to learn about how circularity already happens in their neighbourhood, and how they can be involved too.

Generosity and community wellbeing

The foundations of generosity are powerful for building social bonds. One group member reflected on how being a part of her local Buy Nothing Project Facebook group helped her to feel more connected to her community. Many opt to join their local group upon relocating to a new area, citing “getting to know other people in the community” to facilitate a sense of belonging when she moved into the suburb.

For others, wellbeing benefits came from the acts of generosity and altruism facilitated by the groups. The act of giving, whether in response to a specific request or out of a desire to share something no longer needed, was seen as a meaningful way to contribute and experience personal fulfilment. Members often spoke of the positive emotions associated with giving, describing it as a source of “feel-good moments” and expressing that “giving feels great”.

Facebook is an immediate source for Buy Nothing all across Australia.

A role for council?

Our findings reveal clear opportunities for local councils to support the growth of generosity and circularity financially or organisationally within their neighbourhoods. Councils can consider playing an active role in establishing and supporting Buy Nothing Project groups within their jurisdictions, contributing to their sustainability and effectiveness as platforms for community engagement.

This could involve:

  • Council staff providing resources or allocating time to starting local groups
  • Efforts to increase participation, via promotion and support of existing Buy Nothing Project groups in consultation with their admins
  • Recognising the contributions these volunteers make to diverting products from landfill, enhancing community wellbeing, and increasing citizen education on sustainable consumption, use and disposal practices via existing awards programs or initiatives

Activating a community’s generosity and desire for connectedness, and people’s increased consciousness of waste reduction via Buy Nothing Project groups is a plus sum game for all involved. Activity such as this will help councils to support a culture of resource sharing and reduce waste generation, ultimately contributing to a more circular and connected community.

Our research project, Hyperlocal Generosity, at the Queensland University of Technology, offers a report with a full list of our findings and recommendations for councils keen to find out more. To download the report, head to https://research.qut.edu.au/textiler/research/hyperlocal-generosity

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