Recycle, Reuse, Re-Everything

Josh Cohen, CEO of The Junkluggers

The idea for Junkluggers came to Cohen during a study-abroad semester in Australia.

Josh Cohen’05 (BUS) wants to make landfills obsolete. He’s the founder and CEO of The Junkluggers, a junk-removal company that donates and recycles 80% of what it hauls away. Since Cohen, 37, started lugging junk in college, his business has not only grown exponentially from a one-man operation to 200 employees with 80 trucks and multiple franchises, but also has kept over 50 million pounds of unwanted items out of landfills. That’s still not enough for Cohen. His goal is to recycle every last possible item his company picks up by 2025 ­— and to send absolutely nothing to a landfill.

What brought you to UConn?

My dad basically said, “You are going to UConn.” It was an in-state school, and he had gone there. But I didn’t go just because I had to. I was excited to go, especially to get into the business school. I studied real estate and urban economics. I got obsessed with real estate because I was dating a fellow UConn student and her dad had made it big in real estate. That’s what I thought I’d do.

How did you get the idea for The Junkluggers?

I did a study abroad in Australia my junior year. An Australian student said he had made $100 moving his neighbor’s fridge. I thought I could do that. I went home the summer of 2004 and printed some flyers on my parents’ computer and went door to door with them. I was picking stuff up with my mom’s Dodge Durango SUV.

Did you include recycling from the start?

Yes. I was always the guy separating the trash at the house and driving my parents crazy. I loved being outside and was a big hiker. My parents really never let me watch TV. I just grew up to appreciate the environment.

Who was your first customer that summer?

I worked with an elderly woman who had just lost her husband. She was selling her house. So we cleared boxes and boxes of her memories: kids’ toys, their drawings, schoolbooks, and the kitchen table that her family had sat around for 50 years. I realized this is not junk. These are real memories. It solidified for me not to just throw this stuff away but to find homes for it.

How did Junkluggers become a company?

When I graduated I told my dad I wanted to pursue Junkluggers, and he looked at me like I was cross-eyed. So I got a job with a real estate developer for six months and continued to do Junkluggers on the side, hauling loads before work and going back in the evening for more. I would sneak calls while I was in the bathroom. I was making good money in real estate, but it wasn’t my passion. I decided to do Junkluggers full time. I was young and didn’t have any expenses, which made this possible.

When you started this were there other companies like yours?

No. I had to explain it all the time. I miss that problem. Now there’s a lot of greenwashing, companies that say they recycle but don’t.

Has it become easier or harder to recycle “junk” since you started 15 years ago?

Harder. A lot of donation centers began to get picky. So a few years ago we opened our own recycling and repurposing center in Stamford called Remix Market. There we sort, clean, and refinish items we’ve hauled away, donate or sell them, and give part of the proceeds to local charities. We are also now paying the same rate to recycle as to dump trash since China now accepts only a limited amount of recyclable plastics from the U.S. I don’t feel totally optimistic about the environment, but I’m just going to have my company do its part.

What is the hardest thing to recycle?

Cheap furniture, which is a lot of what we take. You can’t burn it or recycle it because they treat it with toxic chemicals on the outside.

How has your work changed your thinking about belongings?

I’ve become more of a minimalist. In our resell store we get all kinds of stuff. At first it was tempting to say I’ll take this or that, but the house began to fill up. My kids don’t need any more hockey sticks.

But do you have a treasure?

We have a giant gumball machine that holds 10,000 gumballs that we hauled out of a candy store that was closing.

What are the central challenges to reaching 0% going to landfills?

Finding places to bring things. For example, there is only one mattress recycler in Connecticut. We now store all our mattresses in a container and haul them there once a month.

If you were the king of the world, what is the one thing you’d make everyone stop buying?

Any furniture you assemble yourself.

What’s your advice for anyone who wants to start a mission-driven business?

Choose something that has real meaning for you, not B.S. That’s driven me. I think the world needs more of that.

By amy sutherland

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