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Value of collecting pop tabs

| Thursday, February 20, 2020

For over three years now, my friends and I have had an obsession with collecting pop tabs, those metal pieces on the tops of aluminum cans. The idea behind collecting the pop tabs is that they can be donated to the Ronald McDonald House Charities, an organization that helps families with sick children resident close to where their child’s treatment is located. 

Our collecting had humble beginnings. My friend LG simply put a solo cup on the TV stand and asked us to pull the tabs off our beers and throw them in. After a few weeks, the cup was already full. What we had accomplished was incredible, all without getting up from our big brown couch. We started to dream about all the good we were doing for the world. A can thrown into the trash with its tab still on was met with enormous hostility. “Save a tab, save a life,” became our motto.

After our Halloween party, “3 Spooky Main,” (named after our hallway in Alumni) a purple pumpkin Halloween pail became our new collecting bin. That’s when things really started to ramp up. Our hearts began to wonder. How long would it take to fill the pumpkin? Could it even be done? Could we save that many lives?

Pop tab collection became a sort of competition, a team sport played against the opposition of time. My friends and I would scrounge around bars, pulling pop tabs off abandoned beer cans, drawing questioning glances from the unenlightened. Tailgate season meant jingling pockets filled with pop tabs after long hours in the stadium parking lot. Breaks from school meant someone had to take the pumpkin home and care for it. On one of those breaks I went to a pottery painting store with my then nine-year-old sister. She painted a colorful rainbow lizard, an expression of her personal imagination and creativity. I revealed how entrenched I was in this quest by passing on hundreds of different animals, characters, and other blank pottery shapes in the store before finally taking one white bowl from a shelf and drawing in big green letters, “Save a tab, Save a life.”

It wasn’t until this Fall, more than three years after our collecting began, that the pumpkin was full. We made guesses as to how many pop tabs were within the beast. After an afternoon of counting, the tally stood at a little over 7,300 pop tabs. 

Amazed at what we had accomplished, I decided to see what our aluminum filled pumpkin was worth. Depending upon the market for high-grade aluminum, the Ronald McDonald house receives between $0.40 to $0.50 per pound of pop tabs. It takes roughly 1,128 pop tabs to equal one pound. That means that at best, a pop tab is worth about $0.0004. In other words, you need 23 tabs to earn a penny. After over three years of collecting, with contributions coming from dozens of people, my friends and I had only raised about $3.

I was at first taken aback, but it didn’t take long to make sense of it all. I think we had known the whole time that we were never doing this for charity. We were doing this for us. It had all been a game. A game with no real consequence. 

The pop tab collecting program was started as a way to teach kids about philanthropy and the importance of recycling. It was never meant to be a significant source of funding for the Ronald McDonald House. The program brings in about $6000 a year, compared to the $34.7 million that was donated in 2018 via McDonald’s restaurant facilitated fundraisers. 

I know collecting pop tabs is a very popular pastime across campus, with some dorms even sponsoring the activity. While I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing something that will objectively lead to some good, I think it’s important that people know the ends that they are working towards. 

Going down the bar at Newfs ripping off the pop tabs of 30 empty white claws is a lot of fun and an amazing way to relieve social anxiety, but it won’t save anyone’s life. If you want to collect pop tabs go ahead. It can be a fun group activity and it does technically help others; just know you’re no Saint Mother Theresa, or really anybody who gives an hour of their time.

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

Matthew is the 3-Talley RA in Alumni Hall, from Cincinnati. He majors in Civil Engineering with an itty bitty minor in Theology. Writing this column is the last in his long list of shortly lived passions. He can be reached at [email protected] and @coltonjorge on Twitter.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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