A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Will saving pull tabs earn free kidney dialysis for needy patients?

May 8, 1992

Dear Cecil:

A little over a year ago I was doing my coachly duty at a high school speech tournament when a fellow coach announced that she wanted the pull tabs from our empty soda cans. She said she was saving them for a woman who could turn them in to get cancer treatment. It sounded like an urban legend to me but I kept my mouth shut, since it's uncool to dis one's fellow coaches.

Not surprisingly, the story had legs. At the start of this school year my students started mentioning that we should be saving pull tabs to help someone get kidney dialysis. As it is OK to dis one's students, I told them they were nuts and pressed them for evidence. None could name the generous hospital or even the needy kidney patient. I hoped I'd put an end to this goofy tale.

Sadly, the story has now appeared again, with the added authority endowed by the school public address system. Every day an announcement is read urging students to place their pull tabs in collection containers so they can be given to some poor nameless kidney patient. The kids are now convinced there must be some substance to this and my insistence to the contrary is losing credibility. Please, Cecil, find out what you can and restore my reputation.

Cecil replies:

Don't get your hopes up, teach. 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.

Most such stories were false, but not all. For example, from 1948 till 1979 the makers of Vets Dog Food would make a one to two cent donation to an outfit that trained seeing-eye dogs for each Vets label redeemed. Today Heinz baby food labels can be redeemed to benefit children's hospitals and Campbell's soup labels can be used to buy school equipment.

The kidney dialysis legend may have started with the Betty Crocker coupon program run by General Mills. Most folks redeemed the coupons for kitchen utensils and stuff, but beginning in 1969 General Mills OK'd several fundraising campaigns in which coupons were used to purchase some 300 kidney dialysis machines. The company soon stopped dialysis drives due partly to complaints that it was "trading in human misery." But the idea evidently survived in the public mind, with one twist: the medium of exchange was somehow switched to pop can pull tabs.

The story was so persistent that in 1988 the kidney and pop can people decided to play along. Today if you walk into a Reynolds Aluminum recycling center with a pile of pull tabs and say they're for "kidney dialysis," the staff will nod knowingly, exchange winks, and send a donation equal to the salvage value of the aluminum to the National Kidney Foundation. However, the donation will not pay for dialysis, because there's no need. Medicare picks up 80 percent of the cost of dialysis and state programs or private insurance typically cover the rest. Instead, the donation goes to kidney research, education/prevention programs, and patient services.

So saving pull tabs isn't a complete waste of time. But let's make one thing clear: there's nothing special about pull tabs. You'd save yourself a heap o' trouble and make a lot more money if you recycled the whole can. The Reynolds and kidney foundation people have tried to get that point across with a poster showing a red "Ghostbusters"-type slash through a cartoon of someone trying to detach a pull tab from a can. The headline says, "Keep Tabs on Your Cans."

But the public hasn't gotten the message. Supposedly responsible people — e.g., the honchoes at your school — will organize pull tab collection drives without ever bothering to get the whole story. 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. In other words, it's not important to DO good as long as people FEEL good. Excuse me while I grind my teeth.

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