Collecting Junk For Charity

Status: Urban Legend
image The Oroville Mercury Register has an interesting article about the lost art of saving— how people don't save stuff the way they used to. A lot of people, myself included, save rubber bands and plastic bags in order to reuse them, but back in the old days it was common to religiously save string and tinfoil. The tinfoil, in particular, was a bit of a mystery since it never seemed to be reused. It would just accumulate, the ball of it growing larger and larger over the years. The author of the article (I can't find a byline) also notes the strange, urban-legend-inspired custom of saving lids and other bits of junk:

ANOTHER STRANGE form of saving stemmed from a kind of misguided philanthropy. I have no idea how the myth got started, but a lot of people believed that if you saved enough cigarette packs, cigar wrappers or coffee can lids, you could obtain a variety of devices needed by handicapped people. Fifty thousand empty cigarette packs would fetch a hospital bed; 10,000 cigar wrappers would get you a wheelchair.

Curtis MacDougall, in his 1940 book about hoaxes, notes the case of Earl Baker (pictured): "A stranger told Earl Baker, 11, of Coatesville, Pa., that he could obtain an artificial leg by collecting 50,000 match box covers. Later Earl, who lost his leg when he took a dare to hop a moving freight train, learned it was a hoax. Sympathetic neighbors took up a collection to buy him an artificial substitute." So this urban legend has been around for a while, but it's still going strong, as evidenced by the thread in the old hoax forum about Collecting Plastic Bottle Tops. Lots of people are still out there diligently saving empty bags of potato chips or bottle tops to get someone a wheelchair. If you hear about such a campaign, it's almost always going to be a hoax. I suppose this urban legend appeals to people because it makes them feel like they're doing something worthwhile, and it also plays to the fantasy of taking junk and transforming it into something of value.

Urban Legends

Posted on Thu May 04, 2006


I've heard many, many stories about how if you save up enough box tops, pop can pull rings, bottle caps, or other detritus you can trade them in for a wheelchair, dialysis machine, iron lung, etc., for someone who desperately needs one. As far as I know, none of these turned out to be real.

I'm not sure what saving string is for, unless the savers hope to re-use the string someday. This custom seems a little quaint, since we don't use string much anymore now that packages are usually closed with sticky tape, not string. Last time I read about it, there were several towns in the U.S. (maybe 5 or 6) claiming to have the world's largest ball of string thanks to the life work of thrifty residents (many of them now deceased).

The custom of saving tinfoil (which is actually aluminum) probably dates from the two world wars, when there were national and local drives to collect all kinds of scrap metal, including aluminum, to be recycled for "the war effort." People were also urged to save used cooking grease, paper, and a variety of other things. Some historians have argued that these campaigns actually had little effect on availability of supplies to the military, but they encouraged patriotism and community spirit, since people could feel that they were participating directly and making sacrifices, however small, to help fight the war.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Thu May 04, 2006  at  10:28 AM
I have seen organizations collect cereal box tops for a specific brand, which results in some kind of donation by that cereal brand. Same thing for pop can tabs, I guess once people start collecting they continue to do it even after the promotion is over, maybe in hopes of having a large collection when another promotion comes around. Maybe the cigar, cigarette thing was a valid promotion for some kind of prize way back when, and then it just became tradition. Plus you can always put an expensive label on a junk cigar. Of course if people used to pass out cigars as a act of celebration, like babies and promotions, maybe collecting cigar labels is a way to remember those events.
Posted by Lonewatchman  on  Thu May 04, 2006  at  11:18 AM
Yeah, there's a lot of companies that will have a promotion of 'for every one of our X that you send in, we'll donate fifty cents to Y'. I know Yoplait did one with breast cancer research, and a couple soda cans have had colored tabs to be sent in as well.

Box Tops For Education has been around for a while, too.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  on  Thu May 04, 2006  at  02:48 PM
These kind of rumors were particularly prevalent during the years of the Great Depression, as I recall. It's understandable that people would want to believe that collecting cigarette wrappers would get someone an iron lung or that finding the right Lincoln penny would get you a free car from the Ford company during a time when most people had very little. What's the excuse today, though, when we are supposedly in the midst of a "surging" economy?
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Thu May 04, 2006  at  07:27 PM
at a local supermarket's Bottle Redemption room, there is a jar for "Donate Pull Tabs to Make Wheelchairs" ... apparently soda can pull tabs are made of pure aluminium and you can donate the tabs to one source and still get your five cents back on the rest of the can.
Posted by katey  on  Fri May 05, 2006  at  06:31 AM
Posted by katey  on  Fri May 05, 2006  at  06:35 AM
sorry for the obnoxious multi-posting, it's early and I didn't think my posts out enough.

The Snopes article says 100 can pull tabs have a scrap value of three cents.
Posted by katey  on  Fri May 05, 2006  at  06:36 AM
Not exactly similar, but this story reminded me of Tootsie Roll Pop wrappers. My friends and I all believed as children that if you got a Tootsie Roll Pop with a star on the label, that you could redeem the wrapper for a free sucker. I always lost my wrappers before I could try it, but I can't imagine that stores would accept it as a valid coupon. Besides, I think the star shows up on every third or fourth wrapper, so they would be giving away a ton of free candy.
Had anyone else ever heard of it? Do you know where it originated?
Posted by zsa zsa  on  Fri May 05, 2006  at  02:51 PM
When I was a kid, there were some candies where if you got a special wrapper or lollipop stick, etc., you could redeem it for a prize. Also lots of soft-drink promotions where getting the right bottle cap or pull tab entitled you to some prize. For a long time, Dairy Queen had things written on the end of the sticks for Dilly Bars (chocolate-coverd ice cream bars), and some of them would say you had won some thing (such as a free drink or a free hamburger).
There were also (and still are) many cereal manufacturers that offered various merchandise you could get by sending in boxtops or special coupons or seals from the boxes. My brothers and I had a great time with the Secret Agent spy kit we got this way.
All these are real advertising promotions, though-- not quite the same as a story that mysteriously arises about the need to save huge numbers of some bit of packaging in order to rescue a sick or disabled person.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Fri May 05, 2006  at  04:51 PM
Yes, I too beleived in the "Tootsie Roll Wrapper Star" as a child, but never tried to redeem one either. I guess I was a skeptic even then and thought that if such a promotion ever existed it was probably long over by the late 1980s.
Posted by katey  on  Fri May 05, 2006  at  05:38 PM
Where I grew up (Winnipeg, Manitoba) there was a potato chip company called 'Old Dutch' that used to have a TV show called 'Kids Bids'. Kids would save thousands of Old Dutch potato chip bags and go on the show to bid on sponsor donated prizes like pup-tents, bicycles, board games, toys, etc. They had a real auctioneer who would close each sale with "Sold for [upteen thousand] Old Dutch points!"

I only ever knew one kid who actually went on the show but almost every kid in the neighborhood was collecting Old Dutch points (the 5 cent bag was worth 5 points, the 10 cent bag worth 10, etc). You rarely saw Old Dutch bags on the ground and when you did there was often a race to get to it.

I'm sure many parents heaved a sigh of relief when Old Dutch dropped the promotion and they could finally throw out all those bags and boxes of old chip bags.
Posted by Blondin  on  Mon May 08, 2006  at  07:27 AM
This story reminds me of my dear departed Grandmother.
Every Christmas, my Grandmother would very carefully unwrap her presents, remove and cellotape, and then iron the paper so she could use it next year to wrap gifs for people. She was also quite fickle, and would often save gifts she'd received until the next Christmas, and send them out as presents from her.
If you were particularly unlucky, you'd get the same gift, in the same wrapping paper, that you'd sent to her the year before.
She also used to take the Christmas card down that she sent my grandfather, put it back in an envelope, and give it to him again the following year. Apparently, he received the same card for 20 years, and never noticed.
Now that's recylcling.
Posted by Nemo  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  08:40 AM
Ok so back to the issue about collecting pop tabs...I remember being in high school (MANY years back) and running a campaign in school to collect pop can tabs because apparently they could be used to make wheelchairs. Well it was an urban myth when it began but some of the people that believed in the cause started something up and made it REALITY! They actually sell the collected tabs to recycling plants and then use the money raised to buy the wheelchairs. There are several organizations, such as Girl Guides and March of Dimes that will accept drop-offs of the pop can tabs, and for years now people have sending boxes full. Hopefully these have provided some quality mobility devices for the people that have needed them!
Posted by SK  on  Mon Jun 12, 2006  at  08:37 PM
please help our mother is in deparate need of a hospital bed , she very ill we cant afford to buy one ... if any one can help please call diana or terri at [number removed by moderator] thank you
Posted by diana willett  on  Sat Jun 17, 2006  at  02:03 PM
Here in Malaysia the ringpull thing is still going strong. The girl guides collect them and supposedly pass them on to Thailand to be made into wheelchairs/prosthetic limbs. A very worthy Taiwanese Buddhist organisation, Tse Chi, also are said to offer a free dialysis for every kilo brought in. I don't know how true it is, but wherever we run with the Hash House Harriers I pick up hundreds and so I like to think they are doing someone some good!
Posted by will barclay  on  Mon Jul 17, 2006  at  10:07 PM
A local school here has started collecting pull tabs "to send to Thailand to be made into artificial limbs" so I did some checking.

Can bodies are made from Al AA3104 alloy, tops (inc the pull tab) are made from Al AA5182 alloy (AlMg5Mn), but there is nothing really special about AA5182, its just a bit harder.

The following quote is from

"A charity/foundation in Chiang Mai allied with the Medical Science University of Chiang Mai University is collecting pulltabs from soda cans and lids from Brands jars to make artificial limbs for Cambodians. While there is no "special metal" in pulltabs, the foundation does not want entire cans.

Why not collect the whole can? The foundation does not have a "melter" capable of handling the volume of aluminum in a single can and they don't have a shredder capable of shredding the full can into pieces they could melt. It seems pulltabs are the perfect size for the equipment they have and the volume they can deal with."

So like all myths there is some truth in this one, it just got distorted along the way.

Finally, scrap Al pays about A$1 per kilo here in Australia, and Australia Post charges about A$18 to post a 1Kg parcel to Thailand!
Posted by Mal White  on  Thu Aug 24, 2006  at  01:03 AM
One million pop-tops = 12 pounds of aluminum

12 pounds of aluminum = about $10 (American)

Don't waste time collecting pop-tops.

Collect cans and then donate the money.
Posted by C. Tidwell  on  Mon Jan 15, 2007  at  04:41 PM
I have a friend and she has a son with cerebrial paulsey and autism I was wondering if you could donate some tabs towards them getting a wheelchair? If so it would be greatly appreciated.
Posted by amber morin  on  Mon Feb 12, 2007  at  12:01 PM
The children's show, Blue Peter, used to hold a collection of something every year to raise money for charity (still does, as far as I know). One year it was those silver milk bottle tops, and millions of them weren't sent in (wouldn't work now, who has milk in a glass bottle any more?), and I'm sure they did a tinfoil one.
Posted by Nona  on  Tue Mar 13, 2007  at  06:34 AM
Kinda on the subject...kinda off...Does anyone else remember the "Pepsi Posse" promotion back in the eighties? Pepsi did this promotion where some cans had monetary amounts on the inside, at the bottom of the can. I was helping my grandmother clean out some things (she's a bit of a packrat) and lo and behold, I found about four dollars worth of "Pepsi Posse" cans.
I wonder if Pepsi would still honor those, or if these cans are, perhaps, worth more than the were then?
Any thoughts?
Posted by Heather  on  Sat Jul 21, 2007  at  03:39 PM
Actually I heard this kind of saving was caused by people living through the depression and afterward holding on to everything they could get their hands on because someday they might need those 100 butter tubs they saved. My great grandmother did that exact thing.
Posted by Mr Charity  on  Wed Jan 16, 2008  at  11:14 PM
It ain't junk anymore if you put it to good use. Creating equipment for people with special needs from it is definitely a great idea, since there are so many people in poorer countries who cannot afford state of the art equipment.
Posted by Dean  on  Wed Apr 23, 2008  at  04:45 AM
This may be an urban legend in US, But not for the rest of the world.

The Prosthesis Foundation of Thailand is the proof that this can not only be done but that the artificial legs are sturdy too. It has been using tabs and other recyclable stuff to make artificial legs for the last 13 years.

The foundation has so far produced 16,000 legs for the disabled in Thailand and close to 400 legs for those in need in Malaysia.

For details, please read.
Posted by Foong  on  Mon May 12, 2008  at  08:55 PM
Hi, we have started collecting screw tops off of bear bottls for the supposed use for prosthetic limbs, but can't verify if this is just another one of these hoaxes everyone is talking about. If you know could you please let me know if this is worthy or not? Thank you.
Posted by Troppo!  on  Wed Jul 07, 2010  at  10:45 PM
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