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Old Cellphones, Once Bound for Landfills, Now Bring Colleges Money

College officials often face logistical and philosophical dilemmas in disposing of cast-off cellphones, tablets, computers, and printers.

“At a lot of universities—unless they have a centralized program in place or some sort of waste-management policy through their facilities department—it is really challenging to be able to recycle just about anything,” says Jennifer Sellers, sustainability coordinator at Coastal Carolina University, in Conway, S.C., and a veteran professional in the recycling and waste-management industry. “It is enough just to get people to throw trash in the trash can, especially when things get hectic.”

Now a recycling company based in Erie, Pa., has started a nationwide program in which it pays colleges for spent ink and toner cartridges and small electronics, diverting devices away from landfills and into the $20-billion-a-year electronics-recycling market.

The program, Collected, is run by FundingFactory, a subsidiary of Clover Technologies Group, and it builds on the recycler’s existing e-waste program, which dates to 1997 and focuses largely on elementary and secondary schools.

The business model is a win-win, according to people on both sides of the transaction. It provides colleges with an environmentally conscious and fiscally advantageous way to dispose of electronic devices and accessories—which often contain valuable plastics and metals—while also fueling a burgeoning private-sector industry.

FundingFactory has previously collected materials, including laser-printer cartridges, cellphones, and other small electronics, from some postsecondary institutions on a limited scale, says Conor MacDowell, who is heading the program for the company.

“What we noticed is the amount of waste they were sending in—that is really the gold mine of what we are looking for,” Mr. MacDowell says. “It almost seemed like a no-brainer for us to get into this marketplace. These schools and universities are really small cities.”

The goal is to increase the program’s reach by more than 50 percent, to about 500 campuses by mid-2014, Mr. MacDowell says.

FundingFactory provides colleges with collection boxes and address labels at no cost. It pays for shipping the boxes back to its facility, where the material is sorted. Some of the items are refurbished and sold to third-party resellers who put them back into the supply chain. Other items are broken down for trace materials.

Ninety-one percent of what the company receives from colleges is reused in some way, Mr. MacDowell says. About nine percent is sent to Covanta, a company that converts waste into energy.

None of the material is sent outside the continental United States, Mr. MacDowell says. FundingFactory has mandatory and voluntary environmental certifications, including a “responsible recycling practices” certification that requires evidence of responsible management of materials throughout the supply chain.

Currently, the company does not accept desktop computers or printers, he adds.

Participating institutions are compensated in cash or through a system of reward points. The latter allows colleges to accrue points and redeem them for items like digital cameras or sound equipment from the company’s rewards catalog. Participating universities have used cash earnings for everything from financing a faculty-carpooling program to supporting early-childhood-development programs, Mr. MacDowell says.

The information-technology department at Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design has been sending laser-jet printer-ink cartridges to FundingFactory since 2002, says the college’s systems administrator, Jay Rappaport. Previously they were being thrown in the garbage.

The priority is environmental stewardship, Mr. Rappaport says. The FundingFactory rewards catalog is secondary, he says.

“It is an opportunity to get something or try something I wouldn’t have paid for,” he says. “It is kind of like getting a gift for your birthday. You wouldn’t have bought that for yourself, but now that you have, it is neat and fun to try out.”

Coastal Carolina University has been sending ink cartridges and cellphones to FundingFactory since 2005, says Ms. Sellers, the sustainability coordinator. During the 2012-13 academic year, she shipped a total of 2,400 pounds of material to its facility.

The program is the simplest currently available to colleges and universities, she says.

“Any university needs to be a model for the general community itself, but also for the students,” she says. “Universities have the perfect platform to be able to promote sustainability among its students, and then have them be the spokespeople when they get out.”

The FundingFactory program is just one example of an increasingly sophisticated approach to campus recycling that has colleges leveraging materials once destined for landfills.

“It is something that can generate additional revenue,” says Mike Wilkins, director of materials management and distribution at Purdue University. He oversees an in-house e-waste recycling program with multiple contracts with recyclers, not including FundingFactory. “A person has to think outside the box,” he says. “Large, for-profit companies have been doing it for years.”

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