If aluminum pull tab redemption is a rumor, what happens to all the tabs?


Everybody should know by now that it is not true that pull tabs from aluminum cans can be redeemed for time on a dialysis machine. Of course, not everybody actually knows this, and then the next question is, well, what happens to all those pull tabs collected by misinformed people?

The Snopes article explains that it depends on where you turn in the tabs. They might get recycled at the going scrap rate and the proceeds donated to the National Kidney Foundation or the Ronald McDonald House. But I was most fascinated by this resourceful researcher who played the game of "follow the tabs" from a State Police office to a high school to a hospital to the Shriners to a library to a community college, where the trail finally runs cold.

I related this story to a friend of mine, who did a double-take. "Wait a second. That guy where the trail runs cold? I know that guy. I used to work for him!"

That the trail runs cold was hardly surprising to my friend. Apparently, my friend's former boss was the sort of person who would never admit that he made a mistake, no matter how obvious the error. My friend speculated that when his boss discovered that nobody would take the aluminum pull tabs, he certainly wasn't going to admit, "Oops, sorry everybody." In order to keep up appearances, he had to keep collecting them, even though he had nowhere to dispose of them. And of course, all the independent pull-tab collectors who couldn't find anybody to give them to gradually learned about this guy who will take them, which meant that more and more of them kept coming in. My friend figured, "He probably has an enormous pile of aluminum pull tabs just sitting in his garage."

Comments (25)
  1. John says:

    I had never heard of this rumor before.  It has got to be one of the most bizarre ones out there.  Now if you will excuse me, I have to make a good faith deposit to a Nigerian prince…

  2. mc says:

    Here in the UK it was people collecting plastic milk bottle tops (which for some reason aren’t recyclable) to some how fund buying wheelchairs.

    People collected thousands of them and then found out it was a hoax and no one actually wants them.

  3. Olivier says:

    Same in France, the thing about bottle tops.

    They even made a website : http://www.bouchonsdamour.com but it’s just fake. They claim being an association, but legally they must provide their association registration number on their website… and guess what : there’s no registration number :)

    On a page, they say : "Prix de la Tonne : 200 € au 1er Avril 2008 à ce jour", meaning "price for one ton = 200€", should I really translate "1er Avril 2008" ? ;)

  4. Aaargh! says:

    I had never heard of this rumor before.

    Me neither. I don’t see what the point would be, even if it were true. Why would anyone want time on a dialysis machine ?

  5. Mark (The other Mark) says:

    It’s heard it on and off for the past 15 or so years. The basic premise is that, for some reason, the pull tab of the soda can is special in some way. By donating these pull tabs for recycling, the money will be used to purchase time on a kidney dialysis machine for a person who needs it.

    The details vary- the pull tab may be a special alloy, or some company is matching funds for pull tabs, or some reason why the pull tab is especially valuable. The persons who need the time on the dialysis machines are generally underprivileged kids.

    IMO, this double whammy (Recycling, and helping the sick kids) is what keeps it alive. I’ve actually be asked for a pull tab as recently as a week or so ago.

  6. Tab Hunter says:

    About 1970 it was said by some and perhaps believed that if you showed up at the Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado, with a chain of pull tabs long enough to encircle the brewery (smaller then but plenty big), Coors would give you a lifetime supply of beer for free.

    [Love the screen name you got there. -Raymond]
  7. Nawak says:

    @Olivier:

    I don’t know about these bottle caps… there seems to be several associations doing that. And the association "1 bouchon, 1 sourire" has a registration number on this page http://www.1bouchon1sourire.org/federation_1_bouchon_1_sourire.52.htm

    I don’t know if it is a legit number, but it may be similar to the shriners hospital: associations collecting a relatively dense material and selling it to recycling, bypassing the "free" recycling circuits.

  8. Eric Mason says:

    The Shriners here in Massachusetts collect them (and have for many years). They are recycled and the proceeds are used to help fund the Shriners’ Hospitals for Children. They do this because it is a tiny donation we can each make rather than collect the (huge) cans that one can already collect a deposit for (not chump change up here in the NorthEast).

    Definitely *not* a fake.

  9. Gabe says:

    Each pull tab is worth between .03 and .04 cents. It’s hard to imagine that shipping them would cost less than what they’re worth. For most people collecting them it would be better to sell them to a local recycler and send a check for the money to some charity.

  10. Oorang says:

    I can remember hearing the dialysis rumor back in 1983. So it’s pretty old.

  11. someone else says:

    @Olivier:

    Everyone knows that bottlecaps are *the* currency after the bombs fall.

  12. Jonathan says:

    This is the first time I’ve heard about this rumor. I must say it’s really weird. I guess some people will believe anything you tell them.

    Let’s create a new rumor: Collect the wood chips from a pencil sharpener, and Ikea will exchange it  for any furniture you want pound-for-pound. It’s true – I know a guy whose sister-in-law got a new cabinet that way!

  13. KatieL says:

    "(which for some reason aren’t recyclable)"

    They are recyclable — we just don’t have very many of the plants that can do the recycling in the UK. People keep objecting anytime anyone tries to build one.

    The big problem with plastics recycling is actually separating out the types. It’s easier to do that with the containers — it’s done by passing them down a conveyor lined by people with what I would contend is the world’s most boring job.

    There is a new process which involves mincing the plastic and then using flotation tanks to split out the different types. However this is only now starting to be deployed, partly because of the enormous cost of having nine hundred years of public inquiries before you’re allowed to build a new waste recycling plant[1].

    "It’s hard to imagine that shipping them would cost less than what they’re worth"

    Expanded polystyrene is hugely recycleable, but not actually recycled very much. No-one cares because we charge for landfill (which has a limited volume)[3] by the tonne and EPS is very light.

    Of course, moving it around is expensive (high volume for low material value). The trick is to put it through a compactor first. When I was around the industry a couple of years ago, I wondered what happened to the offcuts; EPS is made in vast blocks and then cut to size/shape.

    Provided it’s clean you can grind it up and simply mix it into the moulding intake at about 25% proportions. Anything you can’t use that way can be turned back into fresh poly feedstock for very little energy expenditure; apart from the moving it about.

    It turned out that while one has to pay to have EPS taken away, if it’s compacted down it becomes something that people will buy off you (because it’s dense enough to cover the transport costs). They just turn it back into regular polystyrene pellets which can go back through the process again.

    EPS would make an excellent, energy efficient, oil efficient, temporary structural material; if we had a closed loop. But we don’t so instead most of it waits in landfill for the people of 2200AD to dig up and use as fuel.

    [1] Yes. As it happens, I do have one just down the road from me. No, I don’t particularly mind[2]. Especially if it lives up to the promised 85% recycling recover rate.

    [2] The next village over has a now rather elderly sewage works which puts these things into perspective :-)

    [3] This is a whole other rant; how can the UK possible be short of holes in the ground? Answer; we’re not. We’re actually excavating more quarry volume per year than we fill landfill. However some countries in the EU are short of space and therefore must charge taxes on landfill use and therefore the UK has to as well…

  14. Karellen says:

    "Apparently, my friend’s former boss was the sort of person who would never admit that he made a mistake, no matter how obvious the error."

    The irony is, of course, that most people will now think he’s a bigger idiot for not owning up to the mistake than they would have if he originally had.

    Everyone makes mistakes, all the time. It’s part of being human. I really don’t understand people who try to deny this.

  15. Marcel says:

    Pull tabs still exist in the US? Haven’t seen one in Europe in over a decade.

  16. Eric Mason says:

    @Marcelm – we’re talking about tearing off the "new style" sealing tabs that replaces the removable ones years ago.

    @Gabe – At least here in Massachusetts, you need not ship them to a charity, there are many places that the Shriners have set up collection "buckets" that you can just place your collection into.

  17. Neil (SM) says:

    @Eric Mason, Steve:

    The Snopes article Raymond linked actually mentioned the Shriner’s program. However it also goes on to say the Shriners only make a few hundred dollars for every million tabs.  Not the most lucrative way to raise money, I guess.

  18. Eric Mason says:

    @Neil(SM) – Not lucrative, but certainly philanthropic. Shriners Hospitals never turn people away. They are a Good Thing ™.

  19. Eric Mason says:

    My friend and brother Alan, a local Shriner, asked me to post this on his behalf:

    Just to add some light to the subject, I am involved with the can tab program at Aleppo Shriners in Boston, MA. We have been collecting the tabs for quite some time and it is a great way to get money for nothing more than a little time spent. It takes between 1,300 & 1,400 tabes to make 1 lb of aluminum. Market prices do vary, but prior to the market downturn, we received between .40 – .60 per lb. In a 1 year period, we were able to raise in excess of $390,000.00 from the tabs. At Aleppo, we use these funds to provide transportation for children requiring treatment at our hospitals. The cost of an air ambulance coming from overseas can be more than $40,000.00 so the money does go quite fast, but this is just one way we raise the funds so we never have to refuse a child treatment. I am located in the Central Mass area and if you have collected tabs and need a way to put them to use, I would be happy to arrange a pick up. Regards! Alan

  20. KatieL says:

    I can understand collecting the stuff to sell for recycling, but what I can’t understand is why not collect the cans as well then? Why just the tabs??

  21. Alan Shriner says:

    @KatieL

    We do collect the cans as well. We take off the tabs and still get the .05 deposit back for the can. The tabs are not coated in paint and plastic therefore get us a higher price for the aluminum. Cans are painted and have plastic coating inside and require additional work to strip them down to the bare aluminum thus affecting the value. Also, the cans are proprietary, owned by the beverage producer and a deposit is paid to ensure that they are returned. We get more for the deposit than we would for the aluminum alone anyway.

    Regards, Alan

  22. Eric Mason says:

    @KatieL

    To add to what Alan said… Here in MA, the deposit on cans is non-trivial and a lot of people really want to keep that money, since it was embedded in the original cost of the full can.

    By processing just the tabs, the donater can still get their deposit back, in full, yet can help the Shriners at the same time – two good deeds (the green value of recycling, plus the tab donation) for the price of one :)

    Eric

    p.s. And thank you, Raymond, for allowing us derail your forum for this cause :)

  23. Steve Friedl says:

    @Eric Mason, re: Shriner friend.

    That math doesn’t look right. Using the most favorable numbers (1300 tabs and $.60 to the pound) $390,000 involves 325 *tons* of aluminum and more than 300 million tabs in a year. That’s more than 800k tabs every day.

    I’m really skeptical that this could be correct.

    ~~~ Steve

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