Ineffective Altruism? The Japanese charity that trades bottle caps for polio vaccines

Those bottle caps aren’t even worth a penny

[I left most of the numbers in yen, but since the recent exchange rates have hovered around ¥107 to the dollar, just divide any yen value by 100 to make a rough conversion. And sorry, most of the links are in Japanese… I couldn’t source any of this in English.]

Last week, a student gave me an essay about the “EcoCap Movement,” a Japanese charity which collects and recycles bottle caps in order to exchange the plastic scrap for polio vaccines (among other causes). As she tells me, she has started collecting caps with her friends on the volleyball team so that she can “save the life of a child.” Because a polio vaccine costs ¥20 and 430 bottle caps scrap for ¥10, she just needs to gather 860 caps. The team goes through dozens of sports drinks at practice every week so they should reach their goal in just a couple months. A solid charitable effort by middle schoolers, right?

But woah woah woah, back up. 860 caps means 860 bottles of water, tea, soda, or other soft drinks. How much did those cost? At Japanese convenience stores, most plastic-bottled drinks retail for between ¥100 and ¥200 — enough to buy 5 to 10 vaccines for the same price as one cap. Why not just skip the sports drinks for a day and bring tap water in reusable bottles to practice? The whole team would save a couple thousand yen, which they could then donate for the purchase of over 100 vaccines, thus “saving the lives” of dozens of children without waiting months to accumulate 860 caps.

I don’t want to criticize some feel-good altruism by a bunch of children too harshly but um… this might be the most absurd charity I’ve ever heard of. Yugh… too harsh. Let me explain with some middle-school grade math and a bit of behavioral economics…

I am going to repeat myself several times here, but I want to be clear with the numbers. First, let’s lay out three assumptions to work as constants. According to my students and my local 7/11:

  • 1 polio vaccine = ¥20
  • 430 bottle caps = ¥10
  • 1 bottled drink = ¥85 (minimum)

Rearranging those, we get four more useful constants:

  • 1 polio vaccine = 860 bottle caps
  • 1 bottle cap = ¥0.023
  • 1 bottle cap = 0.001 polio vaccines
  • 1 bottled drink = 4.25 polio vaccines

Before I move on, I should also give a quick disclaimer here. I don’t consider any of those numbers definitive. An EcoCap pamphlet gives the values listed above, thus validating my student’s essay. However, market prices will vary. I’ve found that the cost of an oral polio vaccine can range from around ¥10 to ¥25 while the more reliable but also more expensive injectables can approach ¥100. For the caps, various sources including the EcoCap director and a now-deleted webpage on transportation costs say the organization earns about ¥10 to ¥15 per kilogram of plastic scrap*, with 1 kilogram containing about 400 caps. But as my math below will show, the actual values of the numbers will matter much less than their orders of magnitude. Even if we fudge the prices up or down a few yen, this bottle cap charity still looks hopelessly inefficient.

* (actual recycling centers seem to sell at up double to 10 times that price. Since I don’t know the market, I won’t comment further but um…)

Next, let’s establish the basic proportion that will determine the inefficiency problems with cap collection. One polio vaccine costs ¥20. The recycle value of 430 plastic bottle caps is ¥10. Thus, 860 caps will cover the cost of one vaccine, with each cap having a rough value of ¥0.023, worth a bit more than 0.001 of a vaccine. Then, as I said before, bottled drinks usually cost between ¥100 and ¥200. But for the sake of charity I’ll use the cheapest item at my local 7/11: some generic-brand lemon-flavored water that costs ¥85 after tax. That means that forgoing a bottled water and donating the savings to charity could purchase 4.25 vaccines. But check out that proportion… just using the orders of magnitude, a cash donation has over 1000 times more charitable value than a bottle cap!

Yikes.

Anyway, with the numbers defined, let’s work through a couple counterfactuals. First, how much good could my students do if they choose to switch to tap water instead of collecting bottle caps? It’s just the same simple math again. At ¥85 yen for the cheapest bottled water, the 860 caps required to purchase 1 polio vaccine had an original retail value of ¥73,100. That would cover the cost of 3,655 polio vaccines. 1 to 3655…  switching to tap water and sending the savings to charity is more than three thousand times more efficient than cap donation!

It gets worse though. So far I have made the generous assumption that bottle cap collection operates at zero cost. Obviously, that isn’t true. So, let’s take a look at costs.

The official EcoCap “collection containers” cost ¥5,000 — the value of 250 vaccines. Expressed in terms of caps, that comes out to over 200,000 caps to break even just for the stupid branded trash can. However, I suspect that the inflated bin prices work like a donation to EcoCap in the same way a charity will charge $100 per plate at a fundraiser banquet.

Consider instead transportation costs to the recycling centers. Even at reduced rates, EcoCap’s shipping partner Sagawa Express charges ¥7,800 to move 10 bags of caps or ¥14,800 for 20 bags — the value of 390 and 740 vaccines respectively. In terms of caps again, that’s around 340,000 caps for the more efficient shipment. So, unless each bag contains more than 30,000 caps (already an absurdity), cap donation will operate at a loss before even considering additional costs like wages, overhead, or sorting substandard material out of the recycling process.

So here’s the second counterfactual to demonstrate how costs will erode what little good cap collection might do: how many more vaccines could EcoCap purchase if it only took cash donations instead of shipping bags of bottle caps? Using the more efficient 20 bag option again, each bag would need to contain ¥740 worth of scrap plastic to break even against Sagawa’s fees. That comes out to 31,820 caps per bag for 636,400 total in a shipment. But using my low-ball ¥85 yen bottled water price again, those caps had an original retail value of ¥54,094,000. If consumers had substituted those bottled waters for tap water and then donated the savings to charity, they could produce just over 2.7 million vaccines — enough to inoculate approximately half of the children under 5 in Afghanistan, one of the last remaining countries with endemic polio. Meanwhile, EcoCap has only just covered their transportation costs. Why even bother with caps?

The obvious rebuttal to my argument is that if people will buy bottled water anyway, why not just donate the spare caps? Even if they are only worth ¥0.023 each, that small amount, once accumulated, should do some real good in the world, right? Sure! As of June 14, EcoCap claims to have collected 14,594,308,831 caps, which, at ¥10 to ¥20 yen per kilogram, adds up to somewhere between ¥335 to ¥670 million in charity fundraising (about $3 to $6 million). Of course, transportation and operating costs will wipe out much of that money. But I cannot deny that they have produced some value for children in need. And then even in Japan, my own students have used EcoCap as a learning opportunity to practice charitable organizing (EcoCap itself originated in a Kanagawa high school). I will not criticize the altruistic impulse behind bottle cap donation.

However, I will criticize the altruistic efficacy of the activity. This is where we finally move past the arithmetic into the economics. I think the “why not” approach demonstrates a severe failure to consider opportunity costs. The colossal effort required to gather 14.6 BILLION caps could have gone towards building organizations with more bang for their buck. For example, EcoCap emphasizes its environmental consciousness by redirecting waste from garbage incinerators (the usual destination for plastic caps in Japan) to recycling centers. But of the three R’s out of middle-school environmental science class — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — recycling is always the least efficient because it requires that the product was already consumed once. By contrast, reusing durable bottles filled with tap water spares disposable ones from incinerators and landfills. And then, simply reducing consumption keeps plastic out of the waste stream altogether, all while preserving over 1000 times more value for charitable giving than recycling the trifling cap (and I’m back to assuming zero cost!!!).

If you’ll take me at my most cynical, EcoCap doesn’t just throw change at the global poor like most large charities with collection boxes at convenience store counters. It throws trash at them. Remember that number: ¥0.023 per cap. That’s $0.00021… or just a bit more than 1/50 of a penny. For 50 bottles of unnecessary consumption — worth ¥4,250 — you extract a single yen of the 20 needed to purchase a polio vaccine. Call me callous for criticizing a charity, but I will respond by calling cap-donation callous for giving so little when its participants could do much more good in the world by skipping the bottled water altogether.

I think the basic efficiency economics damn cap collection well enough. But moving even further into the consumer psychology world of behavioral economics, I worry this whole capitalist commoditization of charity enables a sort of systemic moral failure that goes beyond well-meaning wasted effort. Collect 860 near-worthless bottle caps, toss your petty cash into the collection box, just ¥20 to save a life! No, that’s part of the problem.

As my students’ enthusiasm has shown, even such useless gestures produce the so-called “warm glow effect,” a feel-good sense of altruistic virtue that arises when people help others. Charitable organizations like EcoCap then work to enhance the warm glow with slick marketing techniques to convince donors that they have done their good deed for the day despite dubious real-world results (on the marketing, check out the ridiculously aggressive red-lettered trademark warning at the bottom of EcoCap’s home page). Of course, my student has swallowed EcoCap’s message whole: in her essay she wrote some variation of “save the life of a child” four times in 350 words. But even if her volleyball team completes the months-long work required to collect 860 caps, transportation costs alone ensure that her good-will will never reach an Afghani child. The dangerous part though? She’ll still feel good about it.

At its worst, the warm glow blinds people to systemic imbalances in capitalist economies that perpetuate problems like global inequality and environmental catastrophe, those very same problems that global charities try to patch up by exploiting that very same warm glow. Well-meaning people waste their time on useless busy work like cap collection to feel good about recycling plastic and raising money for children. Meanwhile, the beverage companies that caused the plastic overproduction crisis in the first place generate massive profits that dwarf what charities like EcoCap could only dream of putting towards the reduction of human suffering. In a perverse way, the warm glow helps to maintain a market equilibrium that privileges the luxury consumption of wealthy countries over the suffering of poorer ones. My volleyball students can enjoy a warm glow drinking those sports drinks — the caps will save a child, 1/50 of a penny at a time! But then we could all do so much better for the world by just like… buying a little less bottled water.

It’s absurd.

2 thoughts on “Ineffective Altruism? The Japanese charity that trades bottle caps for polio vaccines

  1. I kind of think the point is that giving up something to donate money is a behaviour taken on only by a few. Whereas, convincing people to donate something that has no value to them, that they have anyway and would throw out, is actually fairly easy (particularly younger people). With more people willing to donate their bottle tops than willing to give up drinking a purchased drink and give the equivalent money, the likelihood is that the charity will gain more from it than if they simply asked people to give them the money they would spend on a sports drink.

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    1. I mean sure, I guess… but if you just want to convince people to do something easy, why not ask them to collect pennies or one yen coins? They have next-to-no purpose for individuals in rich countries but still contain 50x more value than a bottle cap (again, making the absurd assumption that cap collection operates at zero cost). And even then, cap collection is so grossly inefficient that if you convinced *just one in 30* Japanese people to skip *just one* bottled water for *just one* day, you would raise about as much money as EcoCap has from recycling since their founding in 2005 (again, using that absurd zero cost assumption in EcoCap’s favor). If humanity is so selfish that charities cannot even do that, I have no hope for this world.

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