A Bunz Life: Swapping capitalism for community in the Bunz Trading Zone

Photo by Morgan Bocknek.

If living on a student budget has taught me anything, it’s how to go about getting what I want without cash.

Whether this means hopping fences at music festivals or dragging what is now my TV stand off a curb, at this point it’s hard to say whether I’m cheap or resourceful. But my philosophy is simple—if you’re presented with a less costly and equally good opportunity to acquire what you want, law-breaking aside, you should take it.

Sadly, there are things that one can’t simply have enough luck or will to acquire unconventionally, like an actual TV for said TV stand. For some things, you need money. However, there is a last resort I turn to before I open my wallet, a final bastion of anti-consumerism where the only rule is no cash allowed: the Bunz Trading Zone.

It’s exactly what it sounds like – people trade goods and services in exchange for other goods and services. Founded by Toronto native Emily Bitze in the form of a Facebook group, the platform now has a dedicated app, boasting 17,000 bunz (Bunz users) in Toronto and more than 50,000 worldwide.

Originally created when Bitze found herself without spaghetti sauce and without means to buy any, the idea has since been commandeered for numerous spinoffs on Facebook in the form of specific Bunz ‘zones,’ such as the friending zone (for meeting people), pet zone (for pet goods), and entrepreneurial zone (for job postings).

With the number of users in Toronto in the tens of thousands, there’s a high likelihood that whenever I need anything, be it a milk frother for my morning brew or a bike for my morning commute, I’ll have plenty of options to choose from without having to resort to cash. All I have to do is look around my house until I find something to exchange.

Most bunz will be looking for simple things like TTC tokens or booze. As a fashion student, I have more than enough clothes to entice someone to trade. I’ve traded dress shirts for a steamer, T-shirts for tattoo prints and jeans for a vintage razor. Some items are more peculiar, like when I almost traded someone else’s real baby teeth for a water skin and a wooden pipe.

Sometimes, another bun’s ISO (abbreviation for “in search of,” describing what they want in return) for a trade must be bought, a controversial topic in the Bunz world since it invariably brings money into the trade. Most of the time, I still end up spending less money than I would if purchasing the item conventionally.

I avoided spending $100 to replace my MacBook charger by buying a $15 gift card for a bun who had an extra. Next week, I’ll be trading someone a $60 gift card for a bike their ex left behind in a move.

This is the nature of Bunz: you trade things you don’t need for things that you do. That’s why I often find myself getting more value from a trade than the item in question is actually worth, because the other person simply doesn’t need it.

This has often allowed me to come away on the “winning” side of a trade, the most lucrative of which was an addition to my art book collection. After trading $5 worth of canned food for two art pieces, I exchanged those for a coffee table book worth $1,400. The trader, a clerk at a bookstore, didn’t need more books for her crowded shelves; she needed more art for her vacant walls. I, on the other hand, will one day be able to squeeze two month’s rent out of this book if I’m ever in a tight spot.

This system of needs and need-nots fuels an economy that completely bypasses the capitalist system, harkening back to a more primitive form of doing business. And although the potential deals to be struck are endless, the real value of this system isn’t dependent on the goods to be traded, but the people who trade them.

This is the nature of Bunz: you trade things you don’t need for things that you do.

Bunz help other bunz; it’s just the way the community developed. Posts identifying stolen bikes or asking strangers to witness a shotgun wedding are almost always met with immense enthusiasm. I can attest to the size of its collective heart myself. Once, I put out a post in search of dog owners willing to volunteer their time and their pets to comfort a sad friend. A dozen responded eagerly.

However, some of these helpful posts aren’t always as legal, strictly speaking, as I’m sure the authorities would like. Posts warning would-be fare evaders about the locations of TTC inspectors have started to appear, for example.

And of course, it being hard to regulate an unofficial economy, trades can easily extend into the realm of the clearly criminal. If one knows whom to ask, you can find prescription drugs, marijuana—“420” in the parlance of Bunz—and also “happy ending” massages (you know, with the happy ending).

Still, this is a community based on trust. Though the app has a rating system that penalizes buns who don’t show up for trades, really, the entire system would fall apart if no one was willing to meet a stranger to swap on a street corner in the first place.

At the end of the day, Bunz makes a monstrous city like Toronto feel more like a village. For a city so jaded, I like the idea of an imaginary network of people who have each other’s backs without having our hands in each other’s wallets.