ST. LOUIS – The basement of Kate Walter’s home had been overtaken by Christmas decorations, her grown children’s grade-school art projects and a dining room set that once belonged to her ex-husband’s parents.
August was the breaking point. Walter made a call to 2nd Life Junk Removal, and in less than three hours, a truckload was hauled out of her home and a weight was lifted off her shoulders.
“You tend to accumulate a lot of things, and there comes a time when you need to relinquish it and let it go,” Walter said.
That time came for many people during the homebound days of the pandemic. Junk-hauling companies have been taking more calls than ever, packing their trailers with sagging mattresses, threadbare couches and dust-covered treadmills. And all of that trash has led to a boom of sorts in the junk industry, helping startups get started and veterans expand.
Micah Bounds, owner of Florissant, Mo.-based 2nd Life, doesn’t have much to compare the rush to. He started his company just weeks before the first coronavirus case was reported locally in March.
He delayed the initial advertising campaign while he waited to see how everything unfolded.
“It was nerve-racking,” Bounds said. But pretty quickly, clients found him.
The reality television series “Hoarders” depicts junk haulers deftly dismantling mountains of possessions in houses overrun with trash and vermin. But those circumstances are exceedingly rare, haulers said. Most jobs are one-item pickups, such as an old recliner that is tricky to maneuver up a staircase or an extra refrigerator that has taken its last breath.
Rod Green, owner of Jungle Busters Junk Removal and Lawn Care, started a side business selling the comic books, belt buckles and stamps he has come across in his three decades of junking.
He once cleaned out an eyeglass store and sold spectacles on eBay for years after.
Most of his work comes from lawn care — the “jungle busting” side — but the money is in junk.
“I can cut all day for $600 or make that in 30 minutes of junking,” Green said.
It pays to move quickly, categorizing items as they are placed in the truck. The disposal fees at waste transfer stations are an incentive to recycle or donate as much as possible. And there are always a few finds that are too good to let go of.
An increase in home-improvement projects has also contributed to the spike in demand for junk removal.
“People are making their homes more like a vacation because they can’t go on vacation,” said Les Claypool, who owns a 1-800-JunkPro franchise in Granite City, Ill.
Many of his jobs this summer involved removing the debris left from contractors who were resurfacing decks and upgrading backyard patios.
Tim Weatherby, owner of Junk King St. Louis, has lost a slice of the revenue he used to earn from businesses upgrading equipment or renovating their cubicles. In six months, he’s had one office job. But the jump in residential calls has made up for it, with more repeat customers than he’s ever seen.
Weatherby opened his franchise in 2015 with one truck and one other full-time employee.
As Junk King expanded, he shifted to the office side of the operation. But this summer — after adding two trucks to bring his fleet to six — Weatherby hopped back behind the wheel to keep up.
Starting from what he calls the “ghost town” of March, each month has been busier than the one before. Last month, Junk King made double the calls it did in September 2019.
Weatherby is not sure what to expect when the temperature drops.
“St. Louis tends to roll up in the winter,” he said. “But it’s been an interesting year.”