In waste management people often talk about the “three Rs”: reduce, reuse and recycle. The second “R”, reuse, refers to the fact that much “waste” consists of things that is still usable, but is nevertheless thrown away because the owner does not need it any longer. Reuse seeks to find new users for goods which are not broken.
Several initiatives exist to promote reuse. Both second-hand shops, which sell goods, and give-away shops, which give goods away for free, help people to get rid off their excess stuff. But in the Netherlands we have at least three barter shops (Dutch: “ruilwinkels”). These shops allow people to exchange their stuff with each other .
The principle is simple. If Alice brings her old TV to the barter shop, she will earn a certain amount of points (let’s say 10 points). With these points she can then “purchase” other goods – up to 10 points. It is not necessary to spend these points immediately, instead Alice can spend her points at any time.
A problem which might arise, is that some people might need some goods from the barter shop but have not yet earned any points. Also the shop might not have any goods some people with points desire. However, this problem could be easily solved.
Suppose Bob wants Alice’s old TV but has no goods to offer himself. However, Bob might be able to help Alice with her garden. In return of his gardening service, he will receive her points. And hence he will be allowed to “buy” the TV after all.
Barter shops not only help people to dispose of their used but still usable stuff, it could also be used a poverty reduction program. Poor people could offer their services to rich people and in return they can obtain second-hand goods. As poverty-reduction program barter shops are quite interesting for governments, because they do not require additional spending of tax money.
Of course, we will not argue that barter shops can completely replace government-funded anti-poverty programs. But such initiatives will help us to rethink the way we organize poverty-relieve schemes. We need ideas which do not rely upon (forced) redistribution but still help the less affluent to improve their lives.