For Top-Flight Trash Haulers, Business is Picking Up

(The following is an article written by Diane Stafford for the Business and Workplace section of the Kansas City Star)

One man’s trash is … another man’s business opportunity.

And the junk hauling industry is booming indeed.

The biggest junk hauler in the Kansas City area has an annual growth rate of more than 20 percent. At least four new operators have jumped into the local trade in the last year.

Driving shiny trucks that look like small moving vans, today’s junk haulers are a relatively recent evolution from the timeworn guy in a pickup truck snagging odd-job cleanups

Despite the tough economy, junk hauling companies have wedged into a thriving niche market between the trash truck that lumbers down the street and the sporadic donation pickup services offered by charities.

People simply have a lot of stuff to get rid of.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in its most recent report on the amount of waste generated, said Americans recycle or compost just one-third of the 4.34 pounds of daily throw-away stuff each person averages.

The remaining two-thirds of stuff has to go somewhere, and that’s where the junk-hauling niche fits in. “It’s really taken off, and we see plenty of room for expansion,” said Dustin Orscheln, a Kansas City firefighter, who with partner Richard Sloss a half year ago started JunkFighter, a one-truck hauling business. “We hope to buy another truck and double our business by the end of the year.”

What’s fueling the surge of 1-800-Got-Junk?, Junk-King, JunkFighter, JunkBoyz, JunkMan, College Hunks Hauling Junk and any other businesses whose trucks you’ve probably seen traveling the streets or parked in high-visibility lots?

“Hot tubs,” said Mike Stroud, owner of the area’s Junk-King franchise. “You wouldn’t believe how many people want to get rid of their old hot tubs.”

That’s only part of it, of course, Stroud said. But 80 to 90 percent of the junk-hauling business in the metro area serves residential customers who can’t or won’t get rid of stuff on their own and will pay for someone else to do it.

At least 15 flashy, dedicated junk-hauling trucks from several companies are fanning out daily around the metro area, about double the number from a year ago.

They’re clearing out a widow’s house before she moves to a nursing home.

They’re removing old desks and dividers from a business.

They’re taking away a remodeler’s torn-out construction materials and all the other stuff — except hazardous materials — that people can’t burn, can’t carry to the curb, and can’t figure out where or when to take someplace else.

Here’s the appeal of the business: These junk haulers don’t just pick up at the curb. They go in the houses, in the businesses to clear stuff out.

“There’s always been junk pickup,” acknowledged Josh Herron, general manager of the 1-800-Got-Junk? franchise in the Kansas City area. “It’s just that the trucks have gotten bigger and the service has gotten more visible, more service-minded, in the last couple of years.”

Junk haulers are paying to figure out what Google search words bring the most hits, what coupons bear fruit, what telephone book headings best direct customers to them.

But perhaps the biggest change from the guy in a pickup who went to the dump is that today’s junk-clearing business isn’t always a direct pipeline to the landfill.

The stuff cleared out from basements and backyards often is channeled to recyclers, to charities, and to “recovery and transfer” stations that filter through the remaining loads before the absolute end of the junk stream ends up in the dump.

“As more people care about the environment, they’re glad to know things aren’t going straight to a landfill,” said Tyler Staszak, who bought the Jackson County 1-800-Got-Junk? franchise four years ago, added the Johnson County franchise two years ago and the Kansas City, North, franchise last year.

Stroud, who owns the two-truck Junk-King operation, salutes 1-800-Got-Junk? as “the 800-pound gorilla in the field.” It’s the company, he said, that “got people used to the idea of paying to have their stuff hauled away.”

With 11 trucks on the road daily and a need for more way-station space to temporarily hold the used furniture, scrap metals and other reusable or recyclable items, the local 1-800-Got-Junk? operations moved to bigger quarters last month.

Storage space is necessary for the new breed of environmentally and socially conscious junk haulers (which doesn’t include all haulers). The “repurposers” need temporary landing spots for the old appliances, furniture, bicycles and other things they’ll channel somewhere else.

And they don’t just need a phone number, a website, trucks and muscle power. They need connections with apartment managers and real estate agents — good for repeat business — and, of course, satisfied customers, who’ll refer them and reuse them.

The junk haulers compete somewhat on price. Minimum pickup charges are in the range of $70 to $90; truckloads run near $500.

But a lot of the competition is based on the promise of clean, reliable and honest service. Drug-free and good-driving records for workers, uniform shirts and polite customer relations are stressed by the operators.

“Even when the adult kids come in from out of town and have one weekend to clean out their parents’ home, they want to know that the stuff is going to their favorite charity or that it’s being recycled,” Stroud said. “It’s not just trash to them.”

Owners say the tough job market has made it easy to get and keep good workers, even at $11 an hour without health benefits. When they’ve posted job availability, they’ve had dozens, even hundreds, more applicants than they needed.

Employees include college graduates, high school coaches and firefighters looking for second incomes. And the job market has helped keep turnover lower than the owners said they might have expected.

Also stressed in the companies’ marketing is their community “give-back” — their donations to charity and recycling. Mattresses, for example, may go to Sleepyhead Beds, a charity, and building materials to Habitat for Humanity.

Of course, the junk haulers have financial incentives to recycle or donate what they pick up. Everything they can get rid of means a lighter load to pay for to dispose at the landfill.

Another change from yesteryear’s junk hauler is the “upselling” that some companies do.

Staszak and Herron now also send out fleets of carpet cleaners and moving trucks — business opportunities that opened up to them through junk pickup jobs.

“There’s synergy in the junk business,” Staszak said.

Make no mistake: Junk hauling hasn’t become so gentrified that there’s no room anymore for the guy with a pickup truck who tacks a “junk man” sign to a neighborhood telephone pole.

But the visibility and marketing power of franchised and fancier startups have brought a new image — along with a new cost structure and trickle-down business — to the trade.


Tips for dealing with junk hauling companies
•Call around to compare prices and services.•Make sure you’ve separated your “trash from treasures” so you don’t regret losing valuables.

•Flatten empty containers so you don’t pay to fill a truck with empties.

•Ask or request what charities will receive appropriate donations.

•Ask or request what recycling will be done.

•Don’t expect them to take hazardous materials. They shouldn’t.

•Don’t agree to on-the-spot “upselling” of cleaning or moving services without getting comparative price quotes.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

Posted on Fri, Sep. 30, 2011 11:24 PM

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