Education Funding

Schools Earn Easy Cash Collecting Used Printer Cartridges

By Andrew Trotter — April 26, 2005 7 min read
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The humble printer cartridge—a necessary item in an ever-growing number of businesses, homes, and schools—is a bone of contention in an industrial struggle worth billions of dollars to corporations and, potentially, thousands of dollars to individual schools.

Schools are discovering there is money to be made from empty ink and toner cartridges used in computer printers, fax machines, and photocopiers. Scores of companies offer payments for the cartridges, with price lists posted on Web sites such as empties4cash.com and cartridgesforkids.com.

The companies are part of an upstart industry that is challenging the giants of the printer trade—such as Hewlett-Packard, Epson, and Lexmark—and that view schools as important, if unwitting, allies.

Sarah Agan, right, a 7th grader at Seattle's Whitman Middle School, and her teacher, Rebecca M. Cline, move boxes of used printer cartridges to sell to companies that refurbish and refill them.

The newcomers have carved out profits at the giants’ expense by collecting used inkjet and toner cartridges, reconditioning and refilling them, and selling them at a steep discount compared with the price of brand-new cartridges. New cartridges, as purchasers of inexpensive new inkjet printers often learn to their dismay, can cost half the price of the printer itself, or even more.

Having addressed some quality concerns that dogged its early years, the cartridge-remanufacturing industry has an estimated 5,000 companies in the United States alone, and processes about 27 million used cartridges annually, for $4 billion in revenue, according to the Las Vegas-based International Imaging Technology Council, a trade group representing such companies.

That hardly rivals the $60 billion in sales of new ink and toner cartridges commanded by Hewlett Packard, Epson, Lexmark, Canon, and other “original equipment manufacturers,” or OEMs. Even so, the remanufacturers expect to grab a larger chunk of the cartridge business, as homes buy their second and third computer printers and businesses cut costs.

The remanufacturers also tout the environmental benefits of keeping the empties out of landfills, which they say receive more than 1 million inkjet cartridges daily worldwide. The OEMs also encourage recycling of their used products, but they grind up the empties for use in other products or for disposal. Their competitors contend that recycling into other products is less efficient than reuse.

Remanufacturers also charge that the OEMs’ recycling efforts are designed to keep the empty cartridges out of the hands of the remanufacturers.

“The empties are the lifeblood of the remanufacturing industry,” said Trisha Judge, the executive director of the International Imaging Technology Council.

And that is where schools come into the remanufacturers’ calculations as partners in bolstering the supplies of empty cartridges.

Getting Parents Involved

An employee of ECCO Recycles, in Kent, Wash., organizes boxes of printer cartridges the company bought from local schools. ECCO sells the cartridges to outfits that remanufacture them.

Schools are not vast users of printer and toner cartridges, said Anthony Stead, the vice president of ECCO Recycles in Kent, Wash. “Schools don’t generate a whole lot of [empty] cartridges themselves,” he pointed out, “but when they get the parents involved, that’s where the majority of the cartridges come from.”

Others in the industry agree.

“The reason schools are so good is because they give you millions of families that have inkjet printers in their homes … and they work for companies that have many more,” said Barbara Crawford, the program director of Cartridges for Kids, a division of Access Computer Products Inc., in Loveland, Colo. Since 2000, the program has paid about $5 million for empty cartridges it has collected from its network of 10,500 schools, she said.

With frequent funding shortages, schools are motivated to raise money—and printer cartridges are high-value trash, she said. “Rather than asking for money for wrapping paper and candy bars, we’re asking for trash that allows schools to earn funds.”

Beyond the financial benefit, recycling is also part of the school curriculum in many districts, and students carry that message home, said Monica Surfaro Spigelman, a spokeswoman for Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit promoter of community recycling. “Kids are often the facilitators in the family, giving mom forms to sign, and schools are a gathering point of neighborhoods as well,” she said.

ECCO Recycles and Cartridges for Kids are among scores of companies that offer schools from $1 to $12 per cartridge collected in recycling drives.

“We try to do what we can to make this program as easy as possible” for the 1,500 schools that are in ECCO’s supply network, Mr. Stead said. His company sends schools free plastic bags and cartons for shipping cartridges, and prestamped mailing labels, as well as flier templates to advertise collection drives. It also sends each school a periodic report on the weight of plastic and metal that its recycling effort has kept out of landfills.

Both ECCO Recycles and Cartridges for Kids, like other companies that recruit schools into their supply networks, are consolidators. They cull through thousands of used cartridges obtained from all over the United States and Canada, discarding damaged ones and assembling large inventories by make and model to be shipped to remanufacturers.

The remanufacturers then steam-clean the empties, replace worn parts, refill them with ink or toner, and test them. The refurbished cartridges are sold online or in retail outlets such as Staples and Office Max.

Cartridge Makers Compete

The major cartridge manufacturers do not stand by idly as the remanufacturers threaten a crucial stream of their revenues. In fact, they have approached schools with recycling programs of their own.

For example, Hewlett-Packard Co., based in Palo-Alto, Calif., has a long-running program called Planet Partners that collects empty cartridges bearing the company’s brand in singles or in bulk. Started a year and a half ago, Hewlett-Packard began including a postage-paid, addressed envelope with all new cartridges.

Jean Gingras, an environmental-program manager at the Hewlett-Packard printer division plant in Vancouver, Wash., said that the company has never paid schools or families for the return of its cartridges, but it does turn the material into other products or dispose of it properly.

“We guarantee that it’s recycled in an environmentally responsible way,” Ms. Gingras said. “A lot of the remanufacturers can’t guarantee that,” because they cannot take responsibility for the cartridge’s final disposal, she maintained.

Still, for the next six months, she said last week, Hewlett-Packard is offering registered customers, including schools, discount “points” for recycling its inkjet- or laser-printer cartridges. Points can be used to buy hardware, such as projectors, digital cameras, printers, and scanners, she said.

Many schools that sign up to collect empty printer cartridges do so sporadically, for the occasional $50 check. But what the remanufacturing companies really hope for are schools like Whitman Middle School in Seattle.

At the 1,100-student school, a single class of nine special education students has run a cartridge-collection program for four years, providing thousands of empty cartridges to ECCO Recycles and earning thousands of dollars for the school.

Rebecca M. Cline, an instructional assistant in the class who has worked on the recycling project from the beginning, said the students in her class, who range from 6th to 8th graders, have special needs related to social skills.

“We started [the project] just to teach kids the fundamentals of adding and subtracting, basic use of a checkbook,” Ms. Cline said. But the program proved its worth in another way, by boosting students’ communications skills, she said.

Students Generate Money

Whitman Middle School’s student-run “company,” called Ink Inc., recruits area families and businesses to provide their empty cartridges to ECCO Recycles, either by placing them in a collection box at the school or by scheduling pickups by the company.

Local banks, a nearby Home Depot store, and Seattle University are among the class “accounts,” but its biggest prize came through a parent who works at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center, which contributes empties from all its facilities.

ECCO Recycles has paid the class between $3,000 and $4,000 in each of the past three years—money that paid for class trips to theme parks in California and Florida. The class also contributed $500 in earnings this school year to buy paper for the school.

Building the program took six months of telephone calls, and sustaining it requires constant attention, Ms. Cline said. Her students hold 15-minute business meetings twice a week, call contributors periodically, and publish regular notices in the school newsletter.

“If you don’t keep doing that, every other month, the parents soon forget,” Ms. Cline said.

She pointed out that the profits might not be flowing forever. More and more businesses she calls to ask for empties are already recycling themselves.

“I’m not sure how long this is going to last—it could be next year that the Swedish hospital says we’re going to do it in-house, too,” Ms. Cline said.

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