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," said Walter.
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 here, helping startups get started and veterans expand.
Micah Bounds, owner of Florissant, Missouri-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-wracking," Bounds said.
But pretty quickly, clients found him, including Judy White of New York state. After her sister died in June, White flew to St. Louis. Her sister, a skeet-shooting champion, left a home overflowing with duck decoys, sports equipment and trophies.
White was concerned about potential travel restrictions. She knew she didn't have the time or know-how to plan a long-distance estate sale, so she looked up "junk people" on her phone. Bounds was the first person she reached.
"A bigger blessing I could not have found," White said. In three days, the house was all but emptied, and she was on her way back to New York.
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 say. Most jobs are one-item pickups, like an old recliner that is tricky to maneuver up a staircase or an extra refrigerator that's taken its last breath.
Sometimes, it's a collection — bowling balls, fancy stemware, boxes and boxes of nuts and bolts — that is no longer as valuable as the space it takes up.
Pack rats and collectors
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're 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.
"I'm a pack rat," said Green. "A lot of people's stuff is at my house."
Over the summer, he was working seven days a week to keep up with calls, zig-zagging his three trucks and three trailers across town. It's more manageable now, but he doesn't see a complete return to normal any time soon.
"We live in a society that bombards you with commercials. It's buy, buy, buy," Green said. "Junk will always be around."
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.
Many of his jobs this summer involved removing the debris left from contractors who were resurfacing decks and upgrading backyard patios.
"They're busy, and that keeps us busy," Claypool said.