Americans produce more garbage than any other country in the world. Although Americans account for only 4% of the world’s population, we produce 12% of the waste.
The amount of junk we generate in a typical year weighs as much as 700 Empire State Buildings.
Households can put trash out at the curb every week, but sometimes people need additional service.
- Someone dies, and survivors must empty and sell the house.
- Someone buys new furniture and need to get the old furniture out of the house.
- Someone moves out of town and doesn’t want to move all the stuff.
- Someone must downsize—perhaps for retirement or foreclosure.
What becomes of the unwanted stuff?
People can have yard sales or estate sales. They can call Goodwill or Salvation Army to come and take whatever they can sell in their stores. They can try eBay or Craig’s list. Not everyone goes to that much effort.
And after selling and giving away what they can, they always have plenty left over. Who can sell a broken air conditioner?
The simplest solution is to drag all the junk out to the curb and let the municipal trash collection take it all to the landfill or recycling center.
The junk hauling and scrap business in the US
Commercial junk haulers provide a solution. Decades ago, they probably just took everything to the landfill. Nowadays, their business model requires that they landfill as little as possible. The junk business has become a recycling business.
And when people drag something valuable out to the curb? Some people make it their business to salvage it. They can sell what they collect—especially scrap metal from old appliances.
Besides trash, Americans have produced another kind of waste in abundance: abandoned factories, shopping malls, etc. Eventually, someone in the scrap industry will get permission to remove and sell anything of value from the sites.
Altogether, the scrap industry handles metals, plastic, glass, rubber, and anything else recyclable. It employs more than half a million people, more than chemical and biological engineers, web designers, and computer programmers combined.
Scrap metal, especially copper, commands higher prices than any other recyclable material. Many recycling businesses—including individual scavengers—specialize in collecting metal scrap.
As worldwide demand for metal soars and virgin material becomes more difficult to mine, scrap recycling has become a $32 billion industry in the US.
Recyclers have their own trade organization, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. It includes everything from multi-national corporations down to local sole proprietorships.
A large nationwide junk hauler
One of the larger junk hauling companies, 1-800-Got Junk? started in 1989 when Brian Scudamore thought hauling junk would be a good way to put himself through college. His first venture, called Rubbish Boys, became so successful that Scudamore dropped out of college to run it full time.
Nine years later, Scudamore renamed his company to match its phone number. The following year, he started selling franchises. By 2007, the company had so many franchises throughout the US, Canada, and Australia that it had become impossible to find new territory for any more. Scudamore eventually decided to expand into other home service businesses and franchise those.
Comparable companies include Junk King and College Hunks Hauling.
Small, local junk haulers
One company content to remain smaller and local started near Washington, DC in 2008. Collin Wheeler had a job as a salesman for a moving company when the economy and housing market tanked. Many of the people he talked to were more concerned about all the stuff that they couldn’t move but had to get rid of. He founded 123 Junk to collect unwanted items from people who had lost their homes to foreclosure or otherwise needed to downsize.
Probably every county in the country has at least one locally based hauling company.
These companies, large and small, have different philosophies and different approaches to customer service. They probably all have comparable business models, though.
They donate what they can, then recycle what they can, and send the rest—as little as possible—to a landfill. They work with numerous charities, such as the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, to maximize the reuse of the material they collect and keep as much as possible out of the waste stream.
Some, maybe most, operate out of a passionate concern for taking care of the environment. Every keyword I could think of to look for information for this post turned out to be the name of at least one avowedly green junk hauling business. High tipping fees at landfills force those who care less about the environment to find as many alternatives as possible.
A solo entrepreneur in the scrap industry
The New York Times profiled a man named Adrian Paisley, who makes his living from scavenging trash in Buffalo, New York. He drives his truck all over town looking for what people have left at the curb. With their permission, he takes it for himself before the city garbage trucks get to it.
Most of what he owns he scavenged. Some of it he can use as is, and he uses some of it to make things. When he gets, say, an air conditioner, he takes it apart and separates it into component materials. That effort may triple the amount of money he can get for it.
Paisley also has an app that tells him up-to-date prices for various kinds of scrap metal. “Scavenger,” or even “recycler” doesn’t seem like a high-class job title, but he makes enough money finding, processing, and selling scrap to live in a very nice middle-class neighborhood with his family.
Paisley takes everything he collects and processes to a particular scrapyard in Buffalo, Niagara Metals. That yard does on a large scale the same kind of processing Paisley does in his own garage. Besides buying scrap from individuals, it scavenges large projects itself. For example, it collected scrap from an abandoned General Motors foundry. Cleaning such sites prepares the way for using the land for something else.
Once the Niagara Metals scrap yard has separated everything into clean, saleable products, it takes everything to its main warehouse. When it started, Niagara Metals would salvage scrap from one Buffalo business and sell it to another. As one Buffalo foundry after another ceased operation, the scrapyard found other buyers in other cities and ships material by rail.
A third of all the copper used in the US comes from scrap. As copper mining gets more expensive—and China imports less scrap—that portion will have to grow.
Salvaging scrap and hauling junk are somewhat different businesses, but they play the same vital role: making sure that what someone no longer wants or can no longer use can get somewhere else that will value it. In other words, they’re middlemen who keep stuff out of landfills and reclaim abandoned properties for new uses.
The big business of scavenging in postindustrial America / Jake Halpern, New York Times. August 22, 2019
Boutique junk removal business turns trash into treasures / Abha Bhattarai, Washington Post. June 19, 2011
Eco-friendly junk haulers try to keep it out of the landfill / Carl Wilson, News & Record. October 6, 2019
Facts you should know about junk removal and furniture disposal / Habib Khan, Christian Today. June 21, 2018
To make 1-800-Got-Junk a success, its founder had to rethink everything (including himself) / J.J. McCorvey, Entrepreneur. January 15, 2019
Some rights reserved by Felix E. Guerrero
Pile of clutter. Image by C.M. Zijderveld from Pixabay
1-800-Got Junk? truck. Some rights reserved by Mike Mozart
Scrap pile. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons