What's the secret behind "mail your pull tabs" fund raising?
March 27, 2010 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Fund raising by mailing pull tabs from aluminum cans. Does that really work?

I recently attended a speech given by a woman trying to convince her audience to give her organization the pull tabs from aluminum cans. Her organization will collect the tabs, send them to Ronald McDonald house, and that will then be used to pay for the housing of parents whose kids are in hospitals away from their home towns. It's a great charity, but I'm wondering how this can really be effective.

Assuming these tabs are recycled for scrap, and given the following:
  • you use USPS to ship a 8 5/8" x 5 3/8" x 1 5/8" box
  • this box is theoretically completely filled with pull tabs (not accounting for rounded corners or the holes in the tabs, pretend you melt them down into ingots)
  • the density of aluminum is 2.7 g/cm^3
  • the current market price (I'm taking the high value and not the low value) of scrap aluminum is $0.83/lb
I think you'd be able to stuff about 7.34 pounds of tabs in the box, which would then cost $4.85 to ship.

Ronald McDonald House would get $6.09 for recycling that. Considering you spent $4.85 for postage, you essentially donated $1.24. This site for Ronald McDonald House claims that aluminum is sold for only $0.40/lb, but I'm guessing it's out of date. It also claims there that takes 1,267 tabs to make a pound.

Given these facts, it seems like this is an extremely inefficient use of resources to raise money for this charity. Granted, these soda cans have been used, so it's better that they be recycled than sent to a landfill. And if they're going to be recycled, why not send that money to a good cause. It's a net profit, I get that, it just seems that with the person-hours involved (the woman giving the speech said something like 40 people made this effort to mail in about 80lbs of tabs last year) RMH would shift their fund raising efforts to something a little more effective. Even if half the people involved in last year's effort gave one hour's wages to the cause, that would dwarf the funds raised by pull tabs.

So why does RMH keep doing this rather than something more effective?
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to read the Snopes article on pull tabs. They have a section toward the end that talks about the Ronald McDonald Houses.
posted by gudrun at 4:50 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The price you pay to ship is irrelevant to Ronald McDonald House. They still get the $6.09 for recycling. And you essentially donated $6.09 + $4.85.
posted by stopgap at 5:02 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It would make more sense for people to collect the tabs and deliver them in person to the RMH. The expense of mailing the tabs in are borne of the sender, not the charity so the cost of postage is less important to the charity. Would it be better for the person that mailed them in to send a check to RMH than to UPS? Sure. But a lot of these charity drives are done to increase awareness of giving, not that actual collecting of soda tops. At the least, it might make people a little more likely to put their change in the collection jar at a McDonalds restaurant.

Your link to the RMH is one in New York. I looked at the national site and my local site and there's no pop top effort I could find (for one thing we call those soda cans in this part of the country). My local RMH does a raffle for a dream house. When I heard the ad for it on the radio, I wondered why they don't just sell the house (and cars and other prizes) and take that money rather than selling $150/each tickets. Even though $150 is a big chunk of change to a lot of people, again, awareness of the raffle and RMH.
posted by birdherder at 5:04 PM on March 27, 2010

It costs RMH very little to do this, because it's not RMH funding the collection and transport of millions of tiny pull tabs, but an army of well intentioned cargo cultists who do the work for nothing. RMH knows full well that it's pointless arguing with a cargo cultist, so they just smile and wave and take the metal. It's better than nothing.

What really needs to happen is a widespread urban legend that you can get twice as much dialysis time for collecting nickels as you can for collecting pull tabs.
posted by flabdablet at 5:10 PM on March 27, 2010

I believe the reason pull tabs were valued at some point is because they are worth more by volume than crushed cans.

Take the ubiquitous milk jug full of tabs. There is a lot more metal in there than the same container full of crushed cans. And it stinks a hell of a lot less than collecting cans.

People mistakenly assumed this was because they were gold plated or something.

Also, it's a game. People love games.

Also, I'm not sure it fits the definition of a cargo cult. There is no technology or magic involved. Just an urban legend.
posted by gjc at 8:39 PM on March 27, 2010

I believe the reason pull tabs were valued at some point is because they are worth more by volume than crushed cans.

Not really. Recycling pays by weight, not volume.

Personally, I think this is just obsolete. In the past, removable pull tabs were a significant type of litter -- especially dangerous in parks and on beaches. It made sense to have an excuse to collect them. With integrated pull tabs, not so much.
posted by dhartung at 10:18 PM on March 27, 2010

I've personally thought for years that RMH would do well to stop making those little cardboard houses with a hole in the top you often see, ready to accept pull tabs. I'd imagine the reason they keep it up is publicity. The fact that an organization accepts this ridiculous sort of donation, and the fact that there's a large word-of-mouth network that is passing on this urban legend, means that every time a pop can tab is associated with their organization they get a little PR time.

I would think that for every group of people that go on this ridiculous errand of collecting something virtually useless, there are a few who ask if they can just cut the organization a check, or a few that hear about it as a place to stay and later take advantage of their services when their child is ill.

As for why they keep doing this instead of something more effective, have you actually been to their website? I can't find a single mention of pop can tabs, although they explain several ways to donate or volunteer, and have a mention on the front page of a publicity campaign with NASCAR/Fox Sports.
posted by mikeh at 6:02 AM on March 28, 2010

@dhartung. Yes, by weight. So if tabs have more weight by volume, you can fit a greater amount (by weight) into a milk jug than you can crushed cans.
posted by Precision at 10:14 AM on March 28, 2010

I actually don't see how that's possible using crushed cans, although it might be possible versus uncrushed, which is what most recyclers require (so you don't fill them with sand, etc.). More to the point I don't see the advantage in efficiency being worth it for a can collector. This smells like a back explanation to me.

What used to drive me crazy about this myth (before RMH and a few other places made it "real") was that it actually implicitly discouraged collecting cans for recycling. Today recycling is common through urban sanitation departments so it's more a matter of taking the tabs out of that stream than preventing the cans from getting recycled in the first place.
posted by dhartung at 10:24 AM on March 28, 2010

It takes about 27 aluminum cans to get a pound. A 55 gallon bag of cans weighs in at about 7-10 pounds, depending on how tight you crush 'em, and they don't generally COME crushed. Somewhere back in my posting history is a question asking for a bulk-crushing method. There's also issues about other materials in the cans...

People chuck in catfood containers, slim-fast cans (steel!), beer bottles, random garbage, and cans still full of soda. There's bees and broken glass and all kinds of pains in the ass.

The tabs don't have this problem. They're denser, recycle easier (no plastic coatings or ink), and are not candidates to have other garbage put in the bags.

I used to run a major Cans for Habitat program where we were recycling about...oh...40, 55 gallon bags of CRUSHED cans a week.
posted by TomMelee at 6:19 AM on March 29, 2010

« Older Can multiple users tweet simultaneously on one...   |   What to do with four hours at Edmonton Airport? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.