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Treasures From Trash

Outfit your business on the cheap , with a little digging and places like Freecycle.

To make her Tuscon-based natural building materials showroom Originate as green as possible, Natasha Winnik wanted to recycle rainwater for landscape irrigation. But a suitable rainwater container costs more than $3,000--too rich for Originate's startup budget.

So Winnik checked an online service called The Freecycle Network to see if anyone had a large galvanized container to give away. Sure enough, an area farmer advertised a 4,500-gallon tank for anyone who wanted it.

"When that came across Freecycle, it was basically a matter of borrowing a car trailer to move it," she says. "The only thing we paid for was some gravel to set it on and some hose spigots."

Freecycle lets individuals advertise and give away items they no longer want or need for free. Like Craigslist, with its "free" category, Freecycle is one of several no-cost channels entrepreneurs can use for sourcing (and donating) equipment, furniture, materials, supplies and tools. Freecycle is especially good for computer gear.

"Over a quarter of all things posted on average are computers and electronics," says Deron Beal, who founded Freecycle in 2003. The service has expanded to more than 85 countries and brokers the giveaway of more than 24,000 items a day.

It's also lucrative for those willing to dig a little. Winnik gets salable architectural items such as doors and hardware from companies demolishing old buildings. She says driving through a community just before a scheduled bulk trash pickup can also produce serviceable items from bookcases to power tools.

The downside is that sourcing items through no-charge channels lacks convenience, customer service, warranties and the ability to get exactly what you want when you want it. Still, as Beal says, "The capital economy has a lot of gaps in it for items that no longer have any economic value, but still have usefulness."

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This article was originally published in the September 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Treasures From Trash.

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