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Collection Programs: Tips To Pile Up Profits

Creative ways to get the most out of your clip-and-save and recycling programs.

by Lisa D. Ellis


Students at the Fairlawn Early Learning Center in Lincoln, R.I., compete to collect the most General Mills box tops for their classroom to win custody of a stuffed teddy bear they've named Boxie. The bear, which was donated by the local Build-A-Bear Workshop, offers a simple yet enticing way to encourage the 216 young students, in kindergarten and first grade, to participate in the school's box-top drive.

While all of the kids enjoy the excitement of trying to win the bear to stay in their classroom that month, their efforts also pay off for the school, since each box top turned in is worth 10 cents. Kim Zaharias, the corresponding secretary for the PTO, takes an active role in coordinating the initiative. She says the school raised $1,000 last year through the Box Tops for Education program without investing too much time or effort. "Box tops are something that everyone uses and something that the kids get into," she explains.

Boxie the mascot may be unique to the Fairlawn Early Learning Center, but other schools across the country are finding a host of creative ways to encourage student participation in popular collection and recycling programs. Soliciting families, neighbors, and local businesses to donate used items such as cell phones, ink-jet cartridges, and old laptops, as well as box tops, packaging, and labels from various popular food products they already buy, generates cash to supplement traditional fundraising efforts.

Most parent group leaders who undertake such efforts say that a little ingenuity and coordination are enough to make these collection drives worthwhile. They also remind other schools that not every program will be a good fit, so it's important to target those that fit specific circumstances and capabilities rather than trying to participate in every available opportunity.

Purchasing Power

At Laurel Elementary in Vanceburg, Ky., collecting a variety of items works best, according to Helen Buckner, who runs a special parents' store at the school with the help of her sister-in-law. The parents' store rewards students for taking part in collection and recycling efforts at the school.

Each of the 100-plus students receives a small bankbook, and for every item a student brings in, Buckner says, the bankbook is marked with a "deposit," which is a credit that can be spent at the parents' store on items like bracelets, CD players, makeup, and remote-control cars. A $40 DVD player goes for 1,000 parent store bucks, while a $1 item might go for 25 bucks. Kids get a credit of five "bucks" for each cartridge they bring in; box tops and soup can labels are worth one. Students also earn credits for doing their homework, behaving in class, and running special errands. To help make the value more tangible for younger kids, Buckner says, the kindergarten teacher made dollar bills out of construction paper so the students could see the money they have to spend and practice counting it.

Gifts sold in the store are bought with money raised from a food booth that Laurel Elementary runs each September at a local fair. Buckner suggests that schools with fewer funds that want to start a similar initiative can approach local businesses and ask for donations of goods they can sell or money to help pay for them.

Other important points to take into account, she says, include marking items at a variety of price points and opening the store only twice a year, to limit the time and labor involved. Students should also be restricted to buying only a few items each time so the supply isn't diminished too fast. And siblings should get credited individually for each item turned in. "If a parent with three children sends in 10 box tops, we used to split it three ways," she says; it didn't seem fair, so now the school gives all three kids credit for 10 box tops, which is a bigger incentive for parents to take the time to send in items.

"We are a school with only 110 kids, so the amounts we earn [through various collection efforts] aren't as high as some of the other schools," Buckner says. Still, they do enough to make participation worthwhile. For instance, Laurel Elementary generally earns as much as $240 total from two or three printer cartridge collections a year, and the typical box-top check can be an additional $200 to $300.

Simply Successful

At Avon Grove Intermediate School in West Grove, Penn., collecting recyclables could be complicated because the school has an enrollment of more than 1,500 students in grades 3-6, divided across four buildings.

Christine Stewart, who coordinates the PTA's box-tops program, says that support from the teachers has been essential to its success. "I told the homeroom teachers that I would give each of them $50 to buy books at the Scholastic book fair just for participating," she says. Once the word was out, the group was able to bring in $5,000 last year from box tops alone. In addition, they earned 2,300 points in Campbell's labels, which they used to buy items for the school from a designated catalogue of products. (The labels are worth about one cent apiece in redemption value.)

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Stewart's motto is "Keep It Simple." She says students don't need a lot of gimmicks or incentives to participate—knowing they are doing something good for their school and competing against other classrooms are two strong draws. "I let each classroom that is collecting items know where they are so they can egg each other on," she explains. "The kids love it." She also points out that items are gathered in each classroom, which the teachers like because students don't have to leave to drop them off at a central place. This minimizes classroom disruption and keeps the process running smoothly. At the end of the year, the class with the most donations gets a pizza party, and their teacher is given a gift card.

Regardless of school size, "don't offer a ton of prizes. You really don't have to," Stewart advises. "The kids enjoy cutting the box tops and having them neatly wrapped" because they feel like they are doing something important. And, she adds, remember to include the faculty and thank them afterward for participating; they shop as much as the parents do. Stewart also suggests contacting local businesses and organizations to ask for donations of used items.

Fast Track to Fun

Many kids love a little healthy competition, so April McFall, the technology facilitator at BF Kitchen Elementary in Loveland, Colo., uses it to encourage students to bring in larger recyclables—ink-jet, laser, fax, and copier cartridges, cell phones, and PDAs to support the group's participation in the Cartridges for Kids program. She has created a mock racetrack on a bulletin board in the computer lab, and classes compete to reach the finish line. "I made a racecar for each classroom with the classroom's name on it, and each car has the teacher's picture on it," she says. For each batch of recyclable items that the classes bring in, McFall moves their cars forward on the track.

"When the kids come to the computer lab, they check the board to see where they are," McFall says. "You see the kids light up when they see their cars moving up." Even the teachers have gotten involved; one teacher whose class wasn't doing well collected some recyclables herself. Whichever car reaches the finish line on the racetrack first wins $50 for a class party.

With the participation of many of the 260 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, the school raised $470 through the first race, and a second match is now under way. "Our goal is to earn $800 this year through this program, and anything beyond that will go to the victims of Hurricane Katrina," McFall says. In an effort to raise the stakes, she is encouraging students to ask businesses to save items for them, too.

Kitchen Elementary also participates in the box-top and label collection programs.

McFall says that at any school using programs like these for fundraising, the parent group can play a valuable role in getting businesses involved, as well as in coordinating the collection, packaging, and shipping of the items. That way, all of the work doesn't fall to the teachers.

Directed Giving

For Woodland School District 50 in Gurnee, Ill., which has 7,000 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade, it seems natural that collection efforts would require extensive coordination. But with so many students to bring in items, PTA President Cara McFeggan says that her district has found it worthwhile to take part in Motorola's Race To Recycle program, which has virtually run itself with little effort and tangible benefits.

"We needed $1,000 to save a [reading] program," McFeggan says. She put together a half-page flyer calling on students and parents to help by bringing in old cell phones. A PTA member donated the printing costs, so the project involved no expense for the district.

"When we first started out, we figured if we could get 100 phones at $3 each, we would get $300 for no effort," she says. To her surprise, they collected 747 phones from April to June—just three months. Better yet, Motorola gave her school an additional $1.07 per phone because the company divided the proceeds from individual donations and among participating schools. The grand total for Woodland's efforts exceeded $3,000. Not bad for 90 days' work, McFeggan says, adding that though the district also participates in other programs, including collecting labels, to her the cell phone initiative seems to be the most effective for the least amount of effort. At least 300 more phones have come in this school year.

Besides using the proceeds to save the reading program, McFeggan says the PTA also plans to fund various cultural arts efforts. Best of all, she adds, the only legwork in the cell phone collection involves getting familiar with the rules of the program and understanding how it works. Now that she has that under her belt, little investment is required on the part of the PTA or the district, other than packing up and returning the donated phones and collecting and spending the check.

McFeggan encourages every school to get involved in a collection effort. "I don't feel that there is any reason not to do the program" or others like it, she stresses. "It raises money, and it's environmental"—so the parent group, the school, the students, and the community all benefit.

Tips for Running a Successful Collection Program

  • Come up with a basic collection system.
  • Clarify what specific items are being accepted.
  • Streamline various collection efforts into an overall strategy.
  • Provide creative incentives to motivate students.
  • Communicate regularly with parents through email, newsletters, memos, and local-access cable television to ask for donations.
  • Involve teachers and the principal.
  • Remind students to ask neighbors and relatives for help.
  • Reach out to local businesses.
  • Incorporate the importance of recycling into various lesson plans.
  • Set concrete goals; rather than specifying a dollar amount to reach, attach the collection effort to paying for something the school wants or needs.
  • Ask the local media to spread the word.
  • Continue collection efforts throughout the summer.
  • Drop any collection items that make more work than profits.
  • Remember that small amounts can add up over an extended time.
  • Thank students, school personnel, and families for their help.

The Collected Works of Arcado Elementary PTA

Some schools target all of their efforts toward one collection or recycling program, while others find that participating in two or three may be best. But at Arcado Elementary in Lilburn, Ga., where environmental concerns are a big focus, the 815 students gather sneakers, eyeglasses, water bottles, newspapers, and bottle tops, among other things, says Ginger Criswell, chairwoman of the PTA's environmental committee.

Instead of spending all of the money on activities at the school, some of it is earmarked for others. "Last year, the students collected enough aluminum can pop tops for a family to stay at the Ronald McDonald House for 70 nights," Criswell says. The school got enough ink cartridges to earn close to $200, which was used to "adopt" an endangered gorilla and her two children. The school also asks area businesses for phones, cartridges, and other recyclables.

With so many different initiatives under way at the same time, Criswell finds it important to stay organized. She coordinates everything through a comprehensive recycling center she built and houses in front of the school, where it regularly catches students' attention. "I got a gazebo and put in a sideboard-type table with doors and shelves underneath where we can hide and store things," she says. Students also take an active role in helping run the various efforts. The school has an environmental club, and its members help keep the recycling center clean and remind other students to bring in items. "It makes the kids feel like they are doing something worthwhile and important," Criswell says. What's more, they've learned their efforts can make a difference.

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