Lie — Soda pop can tabs are turned into wheelchairs

The Story

Photo of large pile of tabs, with caption 'It tales 1450 tabs to make one pound, and approximately 500 pounds ot make one wheelchair.'.
University flyer requesting tab donations. 2007.

The tabs on soda pop cans are made of almost pure aluminum. If people remove and collect them, and then donate them to charities, they can be melted down and recast as wheelchairs.

For decades, millions of people have collected these tabs, and they have been turned into thousands of wheelchairs that were donated to people in need.


Urban Legend

All of that is true, except for the part about being turned into wheelchairs.

This story started out long ago. It was an urban legend that became a cruel joke. Over the years, well-meaning individuals and organizations have carefully removed their tabs, pooling the results into huge collections.

But whenever they thought they had finally accumulated enough, they discovered the cruel truth: there is no such process. Scrap aluminum cannot simply be turned into a wheelchair; it would require magic to do anything like that. Thousands of hours of time, hundreds of cut fingers, and who knows how much money for containers, transportation, storage, and advertising were spent, all for nothing. People were left feeling misled, deceived, frustrated, and disillusioned.


In an attempt to kill this cruel trick, Reynolds Aluminum launched a Keep Tabs on Your Cans campaign in 1988. They wanted people to stop wasting their time removing the almost worthless tabs, and to simply recycle the entire can.

But the campaign was a failure: people rejected the truth, preferring to be deceived into doing the wrong thing for the right reason.

A Saviour

After this cruel joke had reared its head far too many times, a smelter in Guelph, Ontario decided to do something about it. The company took pity on its victims and offered to buy their tab collections as scrap metal.

The small scale of the scrap was hardly worth the company's effort to process, but after all the work people had put into collecting it, it seemed like a shame to simply throw it away or dump it into a municipal recycling bin.


This charity web page shows photos of a garage stocked with large containers filled with tabs, 1,5000,000 of them, collected by the Dovercourt Boys & Girls Club.

It takes 1,267 tabs to make one pound of aluminum, which can be sold for 50–60¢. Twenty tabs are worth less than one cent.

Now consider how much work was donated by the 8 people in the photo, and the hundreds of children and group leaders they worked with. Consider how much gasoline etc. was spent gathering it all and delivering it.

Or consider only how much time was spent simply removing the tabs from the cans. Given a huge pile of cans, I suspect someone could continually remove one tab every two seconds. At that rate, it would take over 800 hours of work just to remove the tabs, never mind any of the other work involved.

Then realize that the total amount of money raised was about $700 (which is less than what all those water bottle containers in the photo cost). And notice that this is the biggest collection the agency has ever received. That's less than $1 per hour for the time spent removing the tabs from the cans.

If you deduct all their personal expenses from the $700 and add in all the other time actually spent in the process, they are earning a few cents an hour at best (and possibly actually losing money given the cost of gasoline and what they spent printing flyers etc.).

But even if we generously say it's 15 cents per hour, they could have earned and donated a hundred times as much money, $70,000, by spending that same time at a minimum wage job.

But flipping burgers all evening and donating the wages isn't romantic. Salvaging small physical objects, watching the collection grow, and being part of the process that transforms them into wheelchairs generates far more warm fuzzy feelings, and that's why it works. (And yes, many people actually do believe that the tabs are melted down and directly turned into wheelchairs; it adds to the effect.)

Perhaps the worst case of economic delusion is campaigns that ask people to collect tabs, put them into envelopes, and mail them. These kind-hearted people spend a dollar in postage to donate something that is worth perhaps one or two cents.


This urban legend lives on, and is today even encouraged by charitable groups, such as the March of Dimes (linked to above), or the Ronald McDonald House in Salt Lake City (Family falls for pull-tab urban myth).

The charities freely admit that they make no money from the donations. The cost of handling the donations and delivering them to the scrap metal dealers exceeds whatever money they receive.

The only reason they encourage this lie is as a means of generating free advertising and community awareness for their organization.