Pull-tabs

Pull tabs on McCourtesy page
Five plastic garbage bags, 10 cents each: $0.50; 350 pounds of pull-tabs, scrap metal value $0.13; one photo op with a little girl on crutches, Pricele$$!

Every once in a while I run into a friend (not always the same one, multiple friends) who insist that everyone should save the little pull-tabs off the top of soda-pop cans.

A few years ago, it was supposed to help fund kidney-dialysis charities. It turned out to be an urban legend.

Later, it was Ronald-McDonald House, which is apparently part true. It seems that RMDH capitalized on the urban legend to use it as an activity. The value of the tabs, however, is so small, that the programs value is mostly an activity promoting the charity itself.

It’s easy to find all sorts of information about this on the internet. The most obvious and reliable, in my opinion is Snopes.com, which usually has the straight dope on any of these questionable rumours. Another good article was Associated Content, which I know less about, but had actually checked it out with aluminum recyclers to verify it’s value.

Charity watchdog, Where Most Needed also chimes in with their site.

The only verifiable site supporting pull-tab collection was the McDonalds-sponsored Courtesy Corporation which clearly is collecting pull-tabs, despite any tangible value to them.

The site says:

Some people ask, “Why pop tabs? Why not the whole can?” The answer is that pop tabs are higher quality aluminum and are more valuable by weight. And because they are smaller and cleaner than the whole can, they’re easier to store.

This is disputed in the previous links I posted:

The truth is that the pull tabs are not “Pure” aluminum. They are an alloy, as is the rest of the can, though the alloy is slightly different. Even so, the price that is paid for the pull tabs by aluminum collection and recycling companies is exactly the same as the price paid for the whole can. Recently that price has been between 50 and 75 cents per pound.

and

Since the annual costs of dialysis are currently running between $60,000 and $100,000, we can estimate that it will take about 20,000,000,000 pull-tabs to cover the costs for any one patient in need of dialysis.

That’s 20 Billion.

Another site, Straight Dope tells us:

So-called redemption rumors have been floating around at least since the 1950s and probably earlier. Before kidney dialysis came along you typically were told to save cigarette packs to buy somebody time on an iron lung–one of your classic sick bargains.

and

Urban legends expert Jan Brunvand reports that in 1989 a Minneapolis VFW post organized a pull tab collection drive for the local Ronald McDonald House. When Brunvand asked the organizers why they didn’t tell people to save whole cans, they lamely replied that there were “hygiene problems” and that people liked mailing in the tabs, even though the postage often exceeded the value of the aluminum.

What is being accomplished by collecting these nearly-worthless tidbits of metal?

Environmentalism? No, recycling the whole can would be more productive towards that.

Fundraising? It’s pretty obvious that the value of the scrap metal in the tabs is nearly nothing and far less than that of the whole can.

Education about charitable causes, or community service? How does making a token effort of collecting the tabs alone help? Are we teaching our kids that charity extends only as far as is convenient? That it doesn’t include getting our hands dirty and rinsing out a few cans? That it’s the thought that matters and it’s okay to waste time on a token effort, as long as we mean well? Making a difference isn’t always convenient or easy. Sometimes it involves dealing with issues that aren’t pleasant. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to accomplish only a little, but we should put our effort where it makes the most sense, not in some feel-good gesture.

Awareness for the charity involved? Maybe. But wouldn’t a tractor-trailer full of cans be more impressive than a garbage bag full of tabs? Wouldn’t a mountain of recyclable aluminum be more of a photo op than a little pile of pull-tabs? The number on the check received for the scrap metal would be significantly larger as well. And if you’re going to enlist our kids, friends, neighbors and us in support of your charity, at least let us do something meaningful and productive. Don’t exploit them in a boondoggle that produces nothing more than a publicity stunt.

Saving pull-tabs for charity is not real. It’s not a viable fundraiser, even when an actual group exploits the urban myth to their own ends. If you really want to help a charity through recycling pop cans, recycle the WHOLE can. If you live in a state with deposits, turn in the can and give the deposit to the charity. That will raise far more money and you can choose what group you want to give it to.

Posted in News, Rants
8 comments on “Pull-tabs
  1. M. Moretti says:

    There is a box for pull-tabs in our cafeteria. Most people ignore it, and I never see anyone empty it, but this has been a long-time pet peeve of mine. Don’t get people involved in useless activities under the guise of charity. I have nothing against helping sick people, but believe me, if this “pull-tab collection” charity were real, our family would be one of the first to know.

    Snopes is a good website to check out these kind of things on. A lot of urban legends revolve around helping some “cute little sick kid”. There are new ones cropping up involving helping “wounded soldiers or veterans”. Check them out first. There are plenty of legitimate charities in these categories, children or veterans, that can use your help. And, yes, Ronald McDonald House is one of them.

  2. Mark Gritz says:

    Her aluminum alloy crutches are worth more than all the tabs she’s sitting on.

  3. cordwainer says:

    Just to let you know: As recently as this school year (yes, the school year just begun), my friend’s daughter’s school IS collecting pop tops for charity fundraising. They are not worthless, and your information is incorrect.

    In addition, people may not always be collecting pop tabs for charity, but they sell like crazy on eBay and other sites for projects, the aluminum itself, which is easy to form and melt down for jewelry, electronic projects, etc. For example, many hobbyists make chain mail from them for groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism. One buyer used hers to make a bracelet.

    That the aluminum is an alloy doesn’t make any difference – it’s still light and useful for some projects where a heavier metal would be problematic.

    I’m sure there are other uses out there, so in future, you might want to check around a little more before poo-poo’ing the concept of collecting the tabs.

    The $100 I just made last week seems pretty real to me.

    Cheers,
    cordwainer

  4. Vic Hoffmann says:

    I do not understand why 350 pounds of tabs was only worth $0.13? Even at only $0.50/pound that’s $175.

  5. Vic – It’s called hyperbole, my math isn’t that bad.

    cordwainer – The fact that something can be sold on eBay proves little about it’s real worth. A quick search on Google will turn up plenty of metal wholesalers who will sell you aluminum stock in bulk.

    It’s still a stupid idea to waste people’s time when there are much better ways they could support a cause. The tabs are still essentially worthless, the peoples time is worth much more, if it were used effectively.

    Oh, and almost every “aluminum” is an alloy. Pure aluminum has almost no desirable properties as a metal until another metal is mixed with it.

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