Amid a torrent of upsetting headlines, political commentary and neighborhood rants that define many Facebook feeds, a picture of a sweet tabby next to what looked like pieces of colorful glass broke through the clutter.
"Does anyone have any extra mosaic pieces they aren't using?" Melanie Aggen's post began. "Our cat passed away this week, and my 5-year-old wants to make her a gravestone like the one we saw at the kitty ER. Thought I'd check here before running to Michaels."
By the next morning, 20 people had offered their condolences, along with extra tiles, plastic gems and chipped plates to smash — crafting with a side of catharsis.
Most of these people had never met the Aggen family or their cat, Rita. The exchange took place in the MacGroveland/Highland Park St. Paul Buy Nothing group, one of thousands of groups like it around the world that, together, count nearly 4 million members in 44 countries.
Minnesota has at least 95 Buy Nothing groups; Minneapolis alone has 15. The MacGroveland/Highland Park group is Minnesota's largest, with over 4,000 members (buynothingproject.org).
Started in 2013 by two friends in Bainbridge Island, Wash., the Buy Nothing Project is a grassroots movement that encourages people to rethink consumption, reduce waste, and create meaningful connections by recirculating once-loved items, whether they're basketballs, bunk beds or broken plates.
It's a great place to find or give away knickknacks, kitchen gadgets, clothes and toys, but also furniture, fitness equipment and other high-ticket items. Some members choose to share their time or talents, offering to help someone garden or read a book to a busy parent's kid over Zoom.
No matter what is being offered, it's always free. If someone plans to resell something they receive, such as an artist gathering materials for a new piece, they are simply asked to disclose their intentions upfront. Regifting items within the group is also encouraged.
On the surface, a Buy Nothing group may seem like a combination of garage sale, Nextdoor neighborhood page and Goodwill store. But it doesn't take long to discover that "buying nothing" goes deeper, turning faceless newsfeed names into real-life neighbors.
"Items and skills that are passed between people are tokens of relationships," says Rebecca Rockefeller, the movement's co-founder along with Liesl Clark. "If all you come in to do is get rid of stuff, you're suddenly put into relationships with your neighbors and start feeling like you have meaning within your community."
A pandemic reprieve
During the past year of isolation and economic hardship, membership in Buy Nothing groups grew "exponentially," said Clark, who estimates that around 1 million people joined between March 2020 and March 2021.
These groups became a place for neighbors to form much-needed connections, passing along puzzles and books, or picking up groceries for people stuck in quarantine. The East Side St. Paul group started "Food Friday" as a way to share food with neighbors who needed it.
Members are encouraged to give and receive in equal measure, said Tammy Cheng, co-administrator of the MacGroveland/Highland Park group. After giving something away (called "gifting" in Buy Nothing speak), "the next time you need something, you now feel equally comfortable asking."
Since last March, Cheng has made and gifted more than 2,000 cloth masks, with many members donating fabric, elastic and other materials to her effort. She also rearranged her pandemic work-from-home schedule so she could pick up and deliver items for people without transportation.
Extra effort pays off
Dropping a bag of stuff at Goodwill may be easier than giving things away one by one through Buy Nothing, which requires taking a photo, writing a post, choosing the recipient and scheduling a pickup. But that extra effort is rewarded with the knowledge that your belongings are going to people who can use them right away.
It's also more meaningful to receive an item that comes with a story and not from a store.
Ali Buckneberg received a 1970s Ethan Allen dining room set from a family who no longer had space for it. Through the exchange, she learned a little bit about the previous owners. It's remained a centerpiece in her family's St. Louis Park home ever since.
"We've sat here and had a lot of important, wonderful, tough, loving conversations," she says. "We're so lucky this table found us."
Buy Nothing groups are also popular among people who want to reduce their environmental footprint. Kristen McCoy, a mom of two young kids and owner of Rethink Tailoring in the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis, joined her Buy Nothing group last summer as a way to reuse and upcycle materials that might otherwise be thrown away. She has rescued and repurposed many unwearable garments from her neighbors, and was given shelves to store them on when her basement unexpectedly flooded.
While it might seem idealistic to think this movement can make a dent in the mountain of stuff that's produced, purchased and thrown away every day, it can start to shift consumers' mindsets.
"People who use something like Buy Nothing start to think about their consumption differently," says Adam Minter, a journalist and author of two books, including "Secondhand," an in-depth look at the global reuse industry. Rather than purchasing items for your use only, people with a Buy Nothing mentality may buy stuff "with an eye to it having second, third, fourth lives," he said.
Minter and his wife's primary Buy Nothing group is in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, where they lived before the pandemic. They currently belong to the Hopkins/Minnetonka group.
Aside from a pair of children's safety goggles (for protected plate-smashing), Aggen didn't need to purchase anything for their tabby's tombstone. She got everything she needed from her Buy Nothing group — including a stronger connection to her community.
Erica Wacker is an active member of the MacGroveland/Highland Park Buy Nothing group, communications chair for Zero Waste Saint Paul, and a Ramsey County Recycling Ambassador.