Act: Inspiration

How Learning to Share Again Cuts Waste, and Makes more Resilient Communities

November 22, 2019

Sharing is one of the very first things we are taught to do as children, it’s almost the defining difference between being ‘good’ or seen as selfish. But from the moment we become adults the focus quickly shifts in modern economies to everyone having their own things and protecting ‘private property’. Not only does this exclude people with little money, it leads to a lot of environmentally wasteful over-consumption as households duplicate often underused items. If we shared more in modern life it could cut waste and bring us together. Now a movement is emerging to rediscover the benefits of sharing.

The Share Shed is a library of things in the town of Totnes in the southwest of the UK (also home to the Transition Town network). People can donate useful items to the library – like ladders, drills, carpet cleaners, camping, cooking and gardening equipment, and sewing machines – and others can borrow them for an affordable fee. This enables locals to borrow items rather than buy them for themselves and then leave them unused in a shed or cupboard for years. The aim is to build a more resourceful community, allowing people to connect with each other and share things they may need just once in a while, helping people to save money, space and resources.

Share Shed was set up in Totnes in April 2017 by the Network of Wellbeing, with the help of Totnes town council and Lottery Fund support. It was inspired by a similar initiative in the UK West country town of Frome, where the sharers had helpfully designed a kit to encourage others to set up sharing schemes. In April 2019, a report was produced by students studying sustainability at Plymouth University, which reported over 300 items available to be borrowed; over 500 people signing up as members; and over 490 loans, saving up to £25,000 by their members, and avoiding the production of 268kg of plastic and the generation of 7.5 ton of CO2. Interestingly, the student who led the research became so intrigued he started to work for the library as a volunteer and took the idea back to Spain, where he came from. This is exactly what the Share Shed is about; encouraging the idea of sharing in all ways.

VIDEO: ShareFest Totnes Celebrates Repairing, Sharing and Making, Jan 2019

In January 2020, the Share Shed will become the world’s first mobile library of things, piloting an initiative that will be supporting even more people and moving into surrounding small-town rural communities. The team carried out community engagement in the area beforehand to find out more about the demand: what did people want to borrow, at what times, and where was the best place to pick it up from? This last point is key, because it must be more convenient than buying something cheap if people are to really use it widely. It is hoped that urban libraries of things might pick up on this concept and go mobile, reaching communities who may not usually have access to such facilities.

There are now over 400 sharing libraries worldwide and more being set up all the time. Movements like this can correct over consumption in an area that is currently a real problem, while putting people back in touch with each other locally, creating social bonds and even friendships. It can also help with informal skills transfer, as people learn from each other how to best use a particular tool.

Wider relevance

For those who can afford it, consumerism is out of hand and the accumulation of stuff reflects this – car boot sales and charity shops cannot keep up with the supply of surplus items. Meanwhile, those who are struggling financially, are sometimes unable to access things that could make their lives much easier – such as a good lawnmower or a laminator. Often, people in small or rented accommodation simply haven’t got enough space to store things. And excessive resource usage and waste are affecting the quality of all our lives and the health of our planet.

Sharing is a simple response to address some of these issues. Sharing can be done among family members, neighbours, friends etc, and it can also be done via a library of things, like the Share Shed. The idea of people borrowing useful things that they just need every now and then is not new, but it is not normal practice for most people in developed nations today. Consumer products are so cheap that borrowing and lending has become old-fashioned – and even strange or suspect in some way. People fear their belongings will be broken or damaged somehow and that might create conflict they would rather avoid. This might have always been the case, but people in earlier generations simply had no choice.

Share Shed opted to use a donation model, where items are given for free to the library. This means they don’t have to worry when something breaks or isn’t used too much. For anyone who donates an item, the item is available to them for free at any time. The Share Shed mentioned someone who had given a laminator, but occasionally turns up to use it for a sheet or two. This seems to work well for everyone involved. If items are underused and taking up space, they make efforts to find a new home where they will be appreciated. For example, at the moment, they have several musical instruments that will be passed on to local organisations who encourage music in the community.

Sharing models also encourage the spread of such behaviour as people contact them for information. For people outside the area who want to share, the Share Shed recommend online platforms such as Helpful peeps and Next Door. They also give advice – for example, it really helps if a community decides together which online platform to use, so that local items are listed and visible in one place. For those communities with the space, they encourage them to set up their own library of things.


The Network of Wellbeing are a UK based organisation that put the emphasis on the positive changes that rapid transition can bring about. They support a network of people and organisations that care about the wellbeing of people and planet. You can read more about them here.


In October, the first gathering of 12 libraries of things from across the UK was held, so that they could learn from each other and recognise their position as part of a global movement. For example, the UK South West city of Plymouth operates Borrow Don’t Buy run entirely by volunteers so it can work without funding. In Scotland, the Edinburgh Tool Library now has a 1,600 tools and two workshops, which now makes enough revenue to pay for staff.

The staff team report that the work is enjoyable but slow to build – lots of people think it’s a good idea, but getting them to sign up is another thing. The additional benefits are subtle but important. The Share Shed keeps a kettle and biscuits on hand ready for a chat and a cuppa, and they might even get a little couch! Social interaction is an important part of the process, and some people use it as a social event too. The Share Shed told of one elderly lady who likes dropping by even if she is not borrowing anything to help a young man by showing him how to use a sewing machine, and of someone looking for a lawnmower when none were available being helped by another customer, who heard his need and offered to drop his own lawnmower off instead. This kind of behaviour change and community building is priceless.

Context and background

On average, an electric drill is used up to 13 min in its lifetime. It’s time to change our mindset around consumerism, and in the case of the drill, realise that rather than the item itself, what we need is a hole in the wall, which takes just a few seconds to make. The same principle applies to many other items we need very occasionally. By sharing things, we save money, space and resources.

Enabling factors

Although the idea that we have too much stuff is becoming more mainstream, most people still turn to recycling, donating to charities or, as a last resort, taking stuff to the dump rather than borrow or lend as a norm. Making the move to borrow therefore takes effort, trust and a belief that it is good for all parties. The experience must be enjoyable, good value and easy.

The Network of Wellbeing is the parent organisation of the Share Shed, and its contribution has been fundamental to set up and run this project, already having a local presence and a team of people with enthusiasm and knowledge. The local Totnes town council then provided a small space rent free in the centre of town, which was essential for an initiative that is trying to compete with mainstream consumerism.

A major funder – the National Lottery Fund – then not only provided some financial support to get the idea off the ground and develop it further, but also brought publicity when the scheme won one of their national projects. This brought a lot of attention to their new idea – the world’s first mobile library of things.

Training has also been key, including support from the School for Social Entrepreneurs on start-ups, and mentoring for individuals. All this is only possible thanks to committed volunteers and members who keep donating and borrowing things to generate revenue to sustain the project.

Scope and evidence

  • The Share Shed was set up in Totnes in April 2017, and until April 2019, we had over 300 items available to be borrowed; over 500 people signing up as members; and over 490 loans, saving up to £25,000 by its members, and avoiding the production of 268kg of plastic and the generation of 7.5 ton of CO2.
  • A report was produced on the Share Shed by students studying sustainability in Plymouth University. One of these students was so interested, he worked as a volunteer for the scheme with the intention of taking the idea back to Spain, where he came from.
  • The first library of things was started in Germany by an elderly lady who decided to open her garage to others to use her stuff. It is still up and running today.
  • The Share Shed is one of 11 ‘library of things’ and tool libraries in the UK, and in October 2019, there was the very first gathering of all these projects to share experiences and explore further collaboration.
  • By January 2020, Share Shed will be launching the world’s first mobile library, which as well as serving Totnes, will support the local small town of Buckfastleigh, South Brent and Ashburton in the UK.
  • A video about the project has been viewed over 1.3 million times, generating interest from people all over the world in how to set up similar initiatives.
  • There are over 400 libraries of things worldwide now and the idea continues to spread organically.

Lessons for rapid transition

  1. Sharing rather than owning things outright not only cuts waste but can strengthen communities by reconnecting people, it also brings the use of things into the reach of people on low incomes who might not be able to afford outright ownership.
  2. The sharing movement also helps build a range of skills within communities which sit at the core of more green economies, to do with repair, maintenance, reuse.
  3. Making a range of items more readily available removes consumerist pressures and dilutes the influence of status driven consumption, which can benefit overall well being and mental health, whilst promoting behaviours such as social interaction and learning which are known to benefit well being and make other pro environmental behaviours more likely. Why buy when you can borrow? “The miracle is this: the more we share, the more we have” (Leonard Nimoy)


Tags: libraries of things, Reskilling, reuse, Share Shed, sharing economy, Tool Libraries