Debra Kwiatkowski, a computer room aid at two elementary schools, was cruising the Internet in her basement home office when she came across a potential gold mine: a program that offered points in exchange for used ink jet cartridges. Those points could be traded in for computer software or hardware for the schools.

Always on the lookout for ways to upgrade the schools’ technology, Kwiatkowski immediately signed up. That was a little over three years ago. Since then, Mittineague Elementary and Tatham Elementary schools, both in West Springfield, Mass., have accumulated nearly $5,000 worth of software and hardware through Funding Factory’s ETCEP (Educational Technology and Conservation Exchange Program). The program has yielded the schools an iMac, HP printer, scanners, Mind Twister Math program software, digital cameras, and more. “Just for collecting empty cartridges!” says an ecstatic Kwiatkowski, mother of two children, ages 10 and 13.

Kwiatkowski is part of a growing number of teachers and parent group members who are turning their trash, particularly laser and ink jet printer cartridges, into cash or upgraded technology for their schools. Though printer cartridge recycling is not a new concept, the idea that schools can capitalize on these recycling programs has recently been catching on quickly.

John Klucinskas, president of AAA Environmental Inc., a buy-back recycling organization outside of Chicago that works with elementary schools as well as universities, says he’s part of a $350 billion industry. According to recent federal reports, 53.7 million homes have computers; many of those homes have printers. And families toss out, on average, three to four ink jet cartridges per year, says Klucinskas. “There are literally millions of these things thrown away on a daily basis,” he says. And that’s not counting the cartridges from small businesses and large companies.

Nearly a dozen cartridge fundraising companies exist at present, and more seem to pop up each month. And that growth will continue as more schools see the potential for success and more cartridge manufacturers discover this effective way to collect their raw materials (empty cartridges–unlike, say, a soup label or a cereal box top–are refilled and sold again). Each cartridge program has its merits, but according to many parent groups, they all have one thing in common: They’re an easy way to raise money.

Getting Started

Here’s how the programs generally work: The PTO organizer finds the program that best suits the school’s needs. The school registers with that company. The company then sends out a welcome kit that often includes marketing materials, such as flyers or form letters that can be sent home to parents, informing them of the program and how to get involved. It also provides mailing labels and an empty box or postage-paid envelopes in which to return the cartridges; often, a company will include plastic bags for the empties. The bags guard against ink getting everywhere, and many have a barcode with the school’s registered number just to make sure the cartridges will be accounted for.

Depending on the program, the next step involves a little footwork. First, school supporters need to be informed about the program. Often the organizer will place the empty box in a conspicuous place in the school where kids, parents, and teachers can drop off their used cartridges. Once the box is full, the person in charge just has to slap on a mailing label and have UPS or an arranged carrier pick up the box. All the program representatives we spoke with say their companies pay for postage. As business developer Jeff Stallings says, “We try to make it as easy as possible.”

The programs vary in what they pay schools for cartridges, but in all cases the return is significant because the cartridges are so valuable to the recycling companies. Most companies pay on a scale commensurate with the re-sale value of the cartridges–laser cartridges, for example, are typically worth more than ink jet.

The low end of the scale often starts at 50 cents for simple ink jet cartridges, while higher-end laser cartridges fetch as much as $5.50 each. AAA Environmental pays a flat $1 for every cartridge selected for remanufacturing. Some companies like cut checks right away. Others, like OPRA (Office Products Recycling Associates), pay quarterly.’s Stallings says $80 to $100 checks are common.

Funding Factory’s ETCEP is one of the few programs that gives points for cartridges. Schools accumulate those points and then spend them on electronics, software, or recreational equipment from the company’s catalog. There is no deadline for redeeming the points.

Blue Ridge Middle School PTO President Robin Bartok in Virginia has been running a successful newspaper recycling campaign for the past four years. To begin a cartridge collection program and earn $2 to $3 each was a “no brainer.”

Bartok joined the EnviroSmart program. She wrote about the initiative in the school’s monthly newsletter and stapled cartridge bags to them so parents would have them on hand. Then she placed the empty box in the hallway of the school near the front office, where parents, teachers, and students would see it. She made a poster for the top of the box and more for around the school.

The only hitch came the first time she turned in the cartridges. She didn’t know the lasers were supposed to go to one state and the ink jets to another, and that caused a delay in processing the rebate. But the company straightened things out, and Bartok’s school ended up with a check for almost $500.

Publicizing the program is the key to its success, and it helps to be creative in soliciting used cartridges. “If you’re enrolled in a program but don’t do anything, you’re not going to get anything,” says Dave Steffens, Funding Factory’s general manager.

Collecting From the Community

Before embarking on a collection program, parent group organizers should ask themselves some logistical questions. For example, do most students in your district have computers at home? If not, are you located in an area where there are businesses that might contribute to your school’s collection program?

Steffens suggests PTO leaders pick 10 prospective companies within the community and send them a letter inviting them to take part in the program by donating their cartridges. Once a relationship with a local business is established, it likely will continue as PTO leaders come and go. “So the program has the opportunity to outlive the individual who was driving it in the beginning,” Steffens says.

Eileen Stefanski, president of the Star Center PTO in Wisconsin, serving four elementary schools and a middle school, knows the value of involving local companies. When she signed on with earlier this year, a PTO parent who works in an office supply store took an empty box to work with her. “That’s where we’re getting most of our cartridges,” says Stefanski. In two months the Star Center PTO acquired a little over $100. “I like cash,” Stefanski says. “You can do what you want with it.”

Debra Kwiatkowski also stresses the benefit of hooking up with businesses. “When you’re talking companies, you’re getting more lasers,” she says. The more lasers, the more points, and the greater the monetary returns.

Stefanski is already planning an Earth Day competition for her schools next year. Whichever class collects the most cartridges in the month of April will win a reward, like popcorn and a movie or ice cream. She hopes the incentive will inspire more cartridge collecting.

Debbie Eggers, a parent in the Bruce Elementary School PTO in Maplewood, Missouri, loves the simplicity of the program. As soon as she collected 13 cartridges and sent them out, she got a check back for $26. “Easy money,” she calls it. “And everybody uses printer cartridges now, so we’re helping the environment, too!”

Turning Trash Into Technology

Debra Kwiatkowski of Mittineague Elementary and Tatham Elementary has acquired more than $5,000 worth of electronics and computer equipment for the schools just by collecting used printer cartridges.

How did she do it?

First, she drafted letters (the Funding Factory provided a template) to parents and local businesses to ask for their cooperation in collecting the cartridges. She designed her own flyers and posters and put them around the schools to remind kids to bring in their used cartridges. In addition, she advertised in the local newspaper to entice businesses to join the schools’ effort, and two banks decided to participate.

Kwiatkowski posted the amount of points each school was earning on bulletin boards in the schools. That helped spark excitement and a friendly competition among the children. In just one month, one of the schools accumulated more than 900 points, which, says the computer-whiz mom of two, bought math software for 30 computers, a retail value of $599.