Collectors find can tabs not worth much
Those who collect tabs for money, charity often met with disappointment
Charles E. Shoemaker/The Gazette
Cabin John resident Danny Harris and his wife, Margaret, have an unusual habit – they make a point of collecting pull tabs from discarded cans.
Harris, 83, and his wife, 79, trek roadways in Cabin John, Potomac and Seneca several times a week, often for miles at a time, picking up discarded cans and bottles to trade them in for extra cash and help out the environment.
"We've been commended many a time by people that stop us and say, We certainly appreciate you cleaning up,'" Harris said.
The couple usually recycle the cans, but not before twisting off the tabs. That's because a friend told Harris that the tabs could be traded for time on a dialysis machine for patients with kidney problems. The couple, thinking they could help those in need as they got their exercise, has collected four gallon jugs full of the shiny metal scraps over the past year and a half.
Harris, however, was met with a surprise when he recently called the National Kidney Foundation to inquire where the tabs could be redeemed. A representative there informed him that the tabs could not be traded for dialysis time — that was, in fact, a long-standing rumor.
"Well, it was very disappointing," Harris said of the experience. "I was just hoping it would be true and it could be helping someone else."
According to the National Kidney Foundation of the National Capital Area, the myth that pull tabs can be redeemed for time on a dialysis machine has existed since the 1970s. The rumor may have been fueled recently by the Internet, according to Michele Anthony, senior vice president of communications at the organization.
Rumors surrounding the mythical pull tab have surged in recent weeks, according to employees at the Montgomery Scrap Corporation. While they haven't heard about the dialysis machine rumor, office manager Anna Tompkins-Garcia told The Gazette that the corporation is getting an influx of calls from people who think that a gallon jug of pull tabs can be traded in for anywhere from $600 to $1,000.
In reality, the tabs are only worth 20 cents a pound. The price is down by nearly half from the summer due to nose-diving scrap prices, Tompkins-Garcia said.
Tompkins-Garcia said calls inquiring about the tabs' worth have increased with such ferocity that workers there decided to start a tally. Checking the count Friday, Tompkins-Garcia reported that there had been 40 such calls within the past two weeks.
"I don't know if it's because of the holidays or because money has been tight for people, but all of a sudden they were just receiving this huge volume of calls," Tompkins-Garcia said.
One idea that may be fueling the myth is that the tabs are "pure aluminum," rendering them more valuable than the can itself. That, too, is a rumor, Tompkins-Garcia said. The tabs are made of exactly the same material as the cans from whence they came, and priced the same amount per pound — though it takes significantly more tabs than cans to collect a pound of scrap.
Often, prospective customers show up to the scrap yard with collected tabs, only to leave disappointed, she said. "They're only worth what they're worth," Tompkins-Garcia said.
However, all hope is not lost for tab aficionados. The Bethesda-based Pull Tabs for Charity, started by Bethesda resident Rovi Faber as a tribute to her daughter Jody who passed away from cancer, is a reputable source for donating the scraps and benefits the Ronald McDonald House and the National Cancer Institute.
While the tabs are not pulling in nearly as much as they once were, collecting tabs was a favorite pastime of Faber's daughter. The act is both a tribute to her and a means to get people in the spirit of giving, Faber said.
She hopes that people such as the Harrises who have fallen victim to pull tab rumors will consider her charity. "Their intentions were good, and that has to be admired," Faber said.
Danny Harris said he's unsure what he and his wife will do with the tabs. However, the couple is planning on continuing their walks, and in the future will hang on to the cans they collect and donate the proceeds to a charity. "It doesn't bring in that much, but it's worth the walk," Harris said.