RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.
This week we're talking trash, things we throw away and things we recycle. In the spring we look around and wonder what to do with all that junk.
Ms. STACEY BAIRD (Customer, Pike Place Market): I probably spend at least 15 hours a week just organizing clutter.
Mr. WILLIAM PRITCHARD (Customer, Pike Place Market): Computers, toasters, we got a waffle maker, too.
Mr. MICHAEL GREENWOOD (Customer, Pike Place Market): Tools, old tools. I keep them like they're art objects. I don't need them, you know. Who needs 20 saws?
MONTAGNE: That's Michael Greenwood and before him William Pritchard and Stacey Baird.
NPR's Wendy Kaufman spoke with them at Pike Place Market in Seattle. She was on the trail of Got Junk, the largest junk hauling company in North America.
WENDY KAUFMAN: Junk haulers often have a sketchy reputation. You know, the guy in baggy pants with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Back in 1989, the young founder of Got Junk wanted to change the image and professionalize the industry.
Unidentified Man: Shall we?
Mr. CLINT NICHOLSON (Driver, Got Junk): Let's roll. Just climb in the dump truck.
KAUFMAN: I climbed into the passenger seat of a shiny new custom-built pickup truck, equipped with customized navigation gear and lots of bells and whistles. Seated next to me, in his neat company uniform of blue shirt and pants, is one of the company's drivers, Clint Nicholson.
Mr. NICHOLSON: We've done our inspections. All the tire pressure's great, fluids are great, doors are locked and secure, and we are ready to call our first customer.
(Soundbite of truck started)
Ms. LYNNE LACHER (Customer, Got Junk): You want to get started?
Mr. NICHOLSON: Yeah.
Ms. LACHER: OK. Here's my plan.
Mr. NICHOLSON: OK.
KAUFMAN: Lynne Lacher meets Nicholson and the Got Junk team behind the garage, where there's a sizeable stash of yard debris, lumber and old wood.
Ms. LACHER: The first thing that we're doing today is clearing the rest of the ground.
Mr. NICHOLSON: OK.
Ms. LACHER: You know, the basement will come next, because I can always shut the door on that. But the…
KAUFMAN: Lacher, a warm and friendly woman, explains that this modest Seattle bungalow belonged to her late brother who had lived here for roughly 40 years.
Ms. LACHER: He just knew how to save anything and everything. He says, You're going to have a mess, sis. And I said, Don't you worry, I'll take care of it.
KAUFMAN: For two-and-a-half hours, Nicholson and three other guys move quickly and deliberately through the piles. First, the yard, then the basement, then the garage.
Mr. NICHOLSON: I've got almost a full truck of wood and donate-ables.
Unidentified Man: A metal sander, a little compressor.
KAUFMAN: They sort through the stuff as they go, making a point to separate what can be given to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, what can go to wood or metal recyclers. The company estimates that as much as 60 percent of the stuff they pick up can be recycled, resold or reused.
Sometimes what they haul away has significant value: nearly new sporting goods, antique jewelry, classic comic books. But other times it truly is junk — like the recent Kansas City pickup of 8,000 pounds of cheese intended for catfish bait.
Mr. NICHOLSON: We want to do a final walkthrough to make sure we got every thing.
Ms. LACHER: OK. OK. Good.
Mr. NICHOLSON: We don't want to leave without…
Ms. LACHER: Oh my goodness. Oh, this is incredible.
KAUFMAN: Lacher's brother's garage has been cleared out, swept, and is practically spotless.
Ms. LACHER: Isn't it interesting that we need to have this in today's world? You know, that's how businesses get started, is they fill needs — supply and demand, and there's enough of a demand. So for me, who had a problem to deal with, I mean, these guys were a godsend.
KAUFMAN: Clearly others agree: The company expects revenues of $150 million this year.
The service isn't cheap. Those two truckloads of stuff cost about $1,200 to haul away.
Got Junk drivers like Nicholson typically make about $10 an hour. But, as he explains on our way to the recycling center, there are some unusual benefits. In many cases, they get to keep or sell the stuff they collect.
Mr. NICHOLSON: There's eBay. There's craigslist.
KAUFMAN: And what's the coolest thing you've acquired so far?
Mr. NICHOLSON: Oh, boy. I'd live to take you to my house.
(Soundbite of brakes)
KAUFMAN: Thank you.
Nicholson's furnished just about his entire house from things he's picked up on the job.
Mr. NICHOLSON: This is the living room. The first item I found when I moved to Seattle was this gorgeous, unscratched, Magnavox built into its own cabinet. A European futon, the TV, the barrels, the La-Z-Boy.
KAUFMAN: It's amazing what people give away, Nicholson says. They often tell the owners this stuff is valuable, but they throw up their hands and say, I just want to get rid of it. And getting rid of things has turned into a bonanza for a company called Got Junk.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.
MONTAGNE: A list of some of the more unusual items Got Junk has been asked to haul away is at npr.org.
Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, recycling electronics.