Despite some upheaval in the market, recycling used technology items continues to be a popular fundraiser for parent groups, often yielding solid “cash for trash” at no expense to school groups.

It started with empty inkjet and laser printer cartridges; now many companies accept cell phones, iPods, computers, digital cameras, and even handheld video game consoles. The number of recycling companies has spiraled, too.

But while some recycling companies have thrived and expanded their list of eligible products, others have shut their doors. Rising postage rates have cut into profits. As more products are returned for recycling, the supply goes up, making all of them a little less valuable. And at least one defunct company cited an overabundance of ineligible cartridges as one reason it ceased operations.

For parent groups, that means in addition to sorting through the many variables in recycling programs, it’s important to check references and find a company with a record of stability.

The Basics

The concept is simple. You collect (and get paid for) used technology items; the recycling companies reuse or resell those items. In effect, you’re getting paid to help them gather the raw materials they need to run their larger business. The companies make money off your recyclables, so they want to make it as easy as possible for you to send in what you collect. Virtually all the companies pay postage, and most provide preprinted collection boxes, marketing materials, and shipping containers. Many have online systems to monitor your shipments and payouts.

The payment process varies by company. Some pay on receipt, others pay monthly or quarterly or when you reach some agreed-upon minimum payout. At least one company offers an option to accrue points that can then be used for purchases from a gift catalog.

The longer the period of time between when you send in your recyclables and when you get your check, the more important it is to find a company you trust—the more the company owes you before making a payout, the higher the risk for your group in this volatile market. One factor, therefore, in choosing a vendor for this program is how fast you’ll get your cash.

The range of payments depends on the type of cartridge and the recycling company. Some inkjet cartridges earn as little as 2 cents, although most qualify for about 50 cents each. Laser cartridges fetch considerably more, usually 50 cents to $3 or even higher depending on the model.

Recycling Fundraisers—Chart

Click for full-size chart

Cell Phones

Like printer cartridges, the amount of money you can raise with phones is limited by supply. But there are used cell phones out there.

With the typical cellular service contract lasting 18-24 months, some people are replacing their cell phones on a regular basis. There are millions of unused phones in junk drawers and landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 20 percent of discarded phones are recycled each year. The EPA says most people just don’t know how to recycle them.

There are a handful of organizations that redistribute used phones to the underprivileged, but even they are finding that the real appeal of the old cell phone is its scrap value: The components, especially the copper and plastic, can be extracted and resold. Your PTO can benefit from this profit by including cell phones in your group’s recycling program.

On a per-unit basis, the payout for used cell phones is far greater than for printer cartridges. Some models earn $20, $30, or even more apiece. No matter how compelling your appeals, however, your PTO can never collect as many phones—parents and local business go through far more of the printer cartridges.

Most printer cartridge recycling companies will pay for used cell phones, as well. There are also paying companies strictly dedicated to phone collection, plus many that accept old phones for the environmental benefits of recycling without paying anything back to the donor.

Proceed With Caution

It’s tempting to think of recyclables as commodities and look for the best price for each model. A highly zealous volunteer theoretically could maximize your profits by monitoring the various deals and dividing your recyclables among several companies. There is no contract involved in selling recyclables, so you are free to change companies at any time.

That approach requires a lot of labor and attention, however, and probably isn’t worth the time and effort. You’ll typically be better served finding a single reliable partner with the right payouts and benefits for your group than spending untold hours each month scratching out an extra dollar or two with dozens of different vendors.

Overall awareness of the benefits of recycling can help encourage your members to support your recycling program. But this also means your PTO is competing with other organizations for the same pool of recyclable products.

The most lucrative PTO recycling programs are those that collect products from high-volume users, such as local businesses. Some businesses have realized the financial potential, though, and send in their products themselves. It’s important to nurture relationships with local businesses if you decide to encourage them to donate their empty cartridges to your group. Be sure to update your business partners from time to time on the success of your PTO, and send a heartfelt thank-you note at least once a year. If your partners recognize the good work they’re supporting with their cartridge donations, they will be more likely to continue to support your PTO in this way.

Bottom Line

View the funds raised from recycling as a bonus for your PTO. The uncertainty of the recycling industry makes it impossible to predict how much you’ll earn from the program.

Because there is no contract between the recycling company and the PTO, no one is under any obligation to the other party. The recycler reserves the right to change the amount it pays for cartridges and to remove products from eligibility at any time. (These price and eligibility changes are almost always driven by the larger market as some items quickly become less valuable or sellable for the recycling company.) Your supply is uncertain, as well. One month you might collect dozens of laser cartridges and several cell phones, and the next month just a handful of inkjet cartridges.

Recycling requires very little volunteer effort, however; a recycling committee of one or two volunteers can select a company, set out collection boxes, and start raising funds. Plus, promotional materials are available to you for free, and most communities generate at least some volume of eligible products. Combine those facts with increasing awareness that recycling is good for the environment. The conclusion: If managed well, recycling can still be a good supplementary program for a PTO.