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Vol. LXVI, No. 21
October 10, 2014
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Science on a Shoestring
Post or Find Equipment, Supplies at NIH FreeStuff

Do you need a reagent, a printer or other office equipment? Before you order it, or call your administrative officer in a panic, check out NIH FreeStuff; you just might find it there.

NIH FreeStuff cofounders are Gwendolyn Shinko and Claro Yu. Said Shinko, “Now we just need everyone to use it and spread the word.”

NIH FreeStuff cofounders are Gwendolyn Shinko and Claro Yu. Said Shinko, “Now we just need everyone to use it and spread the word.”

NIH FreeStuff—http://stuff.nih.gov—is a user-friendly web site that lets NIH’ers post and exchange office and lab supplies, equipment and chemicals. You’ll find everything from freezers, centrifuges, incubators and microscopes to laptops, printers, chairs and file cabinets, and even small stuff like hole punchers and staplers. With just a few clicks, that office item you really need could be yours, for free.

“Just go on FreeStuff and look at it,” said co-founder Gwendolyn Shinko, director of the Office of Intramural Research Administration at the National Institute of Mental Health. “If you have any extra items—reams of paper or a -80 degree freezer—before you throw them away or send them to surplus, post it. It’s easy!”

FreeStuff can only be accessed via the NIH network. Go to the site, enter your NIH network username and password and you’re ready to post or search. All items are listed within a category, such as lab equipment or office supplies. If you’re a stickler for protocol, you might wonder, what about inventory procedures? FreeStuff has that covered. There is, naturally, a form to complete for obtaining a property pass for certain equipment and the site explains the process.

Did you know the NIH campus generates more than 4,000 tons of trash a year? And of the more than 8,800 tons of solid waste generated last year alone, only about half was recycled, said Ariell Lawrence, recycling coordinator with NIH’s Division of Environmental Protection. She said NIH could reduce the amount of trash significantly by putting recyclables and compostable items—such as biodegradable food containers—in their proper bins.

So before you toss unneeded office items, keep FreeStuff in mind. The program helps reduce waste and operational costs. As of June 2014, more than 640 items have been transferred among the NIH community, with an estimated savings of $560,000.

One warm spring day in 2011, Shinko was out running and the idea hit her for a free supplies exchange. She’d been working as an intramural administrative branch chief at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and noticed labs and offices often had working equipment they no longer needed. But there was no way to communicate what extra items staff had that would be free to a good office or lab.

Crispin Hernandez-Wong added a chemical surplus program to NIH FreeStuff. So far, it has saved NIH many thousands of dollars.

Crispin Hernandez-Wong added a chemical surplus program to NIH FreeStuff. So far, it has saved NIH many thousands of dollars.

When Claro Yu, a long-time NIH lab tech, approached Shinko about a part-time detail in administrative work, he got energized by her idea and the two founded FreeStuff. It started as a small NIAID initiative, built by inspired volunteers in the IT office. The site expanded and launched NIH-wide in 2013.

Around that time, NIH industrial chemist Crispin Hernandez-Wong was working on a program for chemical surplus redistribution and stumbled upon FreeStuff during Shinko’s and Yu’s initial presentation; he would soon have a chemicals and reagents tab on the site. Often, researchers must buy chemicals in bulk but they may only need a small amount. Now there’s a chemical surplus program through NIH FreeStuff that accepts unused, sealed, unexpired chemicals for redistribution. There’s also the Solvent Recovery Program that takes used or unused, even expired, alcohol, xylene or formalin for recovery and redistribution.

Hernandez encourages researchers to use NIH FreeStuff. “With the high cost of chemical disposal and of buying new solvents, you can use this program, pursue your research and know these chemicals will get used,” he said. “It will eliminate you having to buy these chemicals over and over, and it will save you time and money.” So far, the chemical exchange on FreeStuff has saved NIH many thousands of dollars.

Before FreeStuff, “You could either send a clunky mass email to your colleagues,” Shinko said, “or you could send the item to the surplus warehouse.” But the warehouse had no way to advertise equipment, so if your item wound up there—in the great abyss—it was not likely to make its way back to anyone at NIH again. Sometimes nobody requests a listed item in the specified time frame and it winds up going to surplus anyway. Shinko said they’re working on a site enhancement that would allow the warehouse to reactivate the post.

FreeStuff is good for the budget and good for the environment. Said Shinko, “Now we just need everyone to use it and spread the word.”


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