Franchisee Rolling in Green from Recycling Other People's Clutter

This story appears in the May 2012 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

John Patterson isn't sure if he's breaking even or losing money on the 2,500-square-foot warehouse he's renting on the east side of Madison, Wis. -- and frankly, he doesn't care. Most franchisees of 1-800-Got-Junk run their businesses from a small office or garage and make an effort to recycle some of what they pull out of clients' basements, attics and storage lockers. But Patterson's goal? Recycling or reusing everything viable from his clients' homes.

So far, Patterson and his team have recycled 75 percent of the so-called junk they've collected. Most of what's left is not reusable. "The warehouse is a sorting and transfer station," he explains. "If we haul away four truckloads, only one goes to the landfill."

Patterson recycles 100 percent of appliances; sends broken electronic equipment like computers, TVs and DVD players to a specialty recycler; and does the same for cardboard, fluorescent bulbs and batteries. He sets aside usable small appliances and clothing for a local thrift shop. Mattresses and medical supplies like wheelchairs and crutches are sent to Gambia by a local car exporter, who pads his shipping containers with the mattresses.

Now that Patterson has more or less maxed out the Madison market, he's heading west, bringing his green sweep to Denver, where he recently bought out an existing 1-800-Got-Junk territory. "The other franchisees in Colorado are excited about getting more recycling done," Patterson says. "Customers want us to recycle, and we all want to be part of a green company."

We pulled Patterson away from the can crusher to find out just how green he is.

Why do you go to such lengths to recycle?
We found in the Madison market that our customers always ask, "What happens with my stuff?" Our clients would prefer for their items to be recycled. We felt like we wanted to be a positive influence on the Madison community in general. We do collect good items and nicer pieces of furniture and electronics; it's worth going the extra mile to find a home for those things. People always say to our truck team members, "Hey, this is still good. Maybe you can take it home?" That starts a conversation about our landfill diversion program. Half of our customers are repeats and referrals, so we tell people as much as we can about our recycling to get the word out.

What else are you doing to make your business green?
If I had a choice I'd prefer the U.S. not be dependent on foreign sources of energy. So as a business owner, I make choices to support that. When biodiesel was available in Madison, we converted a truck to run on vegetable oil. In a perfect world, I would have electric hybrid trucks.

But in Denver, I'm going to look at converting our unleaded trucks to compressed natural gas. I've heard it's even easier to do than converting to vegetable oil.

Do you keep track of how much of your customers' junk you recycle?
We started to at the beginning of this year, and at the end of the year we will have hard data and can say exactly how much we've diverted from the landfill. It's pretty surprising when you look at the numbers and see how successful we are with recycling. So far, we're right at 75 percent, like I'd estimated in the past.

Is your home furnished with found objects?
There was a time when I was pulling things off the truck and furnishing my place with good junk. My career is essentially decluttering people's spaces, and it has caused me to become a minimalist. I've decided material items shouldn't be a priority for me. We do jobs for hoarders, people with real mental disabilities. After seeing the living situations of those people, it has pushed me to have as little as I possibly can.

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