Toilet Paper-Themed NFTs Wipe $7M in Medical Debt, People Mad Anyway

RIP Medical Debt used an ether donation to abolish the medical debt of more than 5,000 people.
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Image: Rainbow Rolls

A charity dedicated to eradicating medical debt is facing criticism online after accepting donations from a group that raised funds by selling toilet paper-themed NFTs. 

RIP Medical Debt is a 501(c)3 charity with the stated goal of eliminating medical debt. According to its website, it has relieved more than $5 billion in medical debt since its founding in 2014. It makes money through direct donations and uses it to pay off people’s bills. That’s it. John Oliver once teamed up with the charity on Last Week Tonight to abolish $15 million in debt for 9,000 people.

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Rainbow Rolls is an NFT project minting silly pictures of cartoon rolls of toilet paper on the Ethereum blockchain. According to its website, “63% of funds raised go directly to funding public and social goods organizations like Giveth, Gitcoin, RIP Medical Debt, and more.” To that end, Rainbow Rolls sold NFTs worth 19.42 ETH which it donated to RIP Medical Debt. The charity converted the crypto into cash and used it to pay off $7,357,266 for 5,323 people in 16 states. RIP Medical Debt turned the ETH into cash in early December, when it was worth around $90,000. It then used that cash to buy up bundled portfolios of medical debt on the secondary market and wiped out the $7 million for pennies on the dollar.

Speaking on the Rainbow Rolls discord server, Kyle Stargarden—one of the minds behind the group—outlined the purpose of the cartoon toilet paper rolls. “1.) Poking fun at the cryptobros version of NFT culture 2.)  Create an opening for dialogue, prompt a conversation about what NFTs can and should be doing 3.)  Legitimize NFTs as a force for positive change,” Stargarden said.

People were pissed and shared their displeasure online. They weren’t mad about the debt relief;  they were mad that NFTs were used to do it. The reaction was extreme, with some calling the donation “blood money” and others threatening to stop donating.

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“You were doing so much good,” one reply said. “The short term gains of working with technology as destructive as NFTs is taking away from that. Don’t participate in legitimizing their trash. Just because the harm isn’t immediately obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there.” That user then posted media critic Dan Olson’s now-ubiquitous YouTube video arguing against NFTs.

Both RIP Medical Debt and the people behind Rainbow Rolls were taken aback by the reaction. When reached for comment, the charity pointed Motherboard to a thread on Twitter responding to critics directly. 

“RIP's mission is to abolish medical debt,” the charity said in tweets. “Donations are the life blood of our work and we appreciate all those that support debt relief through us. We understand that where funds come from matters and there will inevitably be differences in ideology across our donor base. We continue to assess the source of donations but can't lose sight of our core work relieving medical debt. Unfortunately we can't address every issue linked to the evolving financial landscape.”

RIP Medical Debt noted that it isn’t directly involved in any crypto activity. “The funds provided to us were converted to cash and used immediately to remove the burden of medical debt for 5,323 people,” it said.

“We fully support RIPMD and their statement and we will respect whatever their wishes are regarding future donations,” 0xJoshua, a co-founder of Rainbow Rolls, told Motherboard. “We didn’t do this to cause problems for them and we regret that our donation caused a backlash.”

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Stargarden of Rainbow Rolls also responded to the criticism in his own Twitter thread. “Rainbow Rolls started as a way to prompt a dialogue about the good and bad things in the NFT space,” he said. “We wanted to satirize the problems and harness it for good causes.”

The thread discussed Ponzi schemes, environmental issues, wash trading, and cash grabs. Stargarden explained that Rainbow Rolls exists to “satirize” cash grabs in the NFT space and do some good with it, and he stressed that similar  problems  plague the IRL art world as well. 

“In summary—I don't want to discount anyone,” he said. “If you hate NFTs because of some of the above reasons then maybe you should support @rainbow_rolls—we're the ones actually trying to change the standard from inside of the industry.”

Stargarden gave the most space in his thread to  addressing the environmental concerns. Many of the responses to RIP Medical Debt focused on this and pointed out that mining crypto on proof-of-work chains like Ethereum (which require computers around the world to run 24/7) comes with a serious carbon footprint. Stargarden pointed out that Ethereum is actively working on this problem and is planning to move to a proof-of-stake system (replacing the global computer race with an algorithm favoring whoever owns the most tokens) later this year, which  is expected to solve much of this problem although critics argue that proof-of-stake is plutocratic and doesn’t offer the same security guarantees as proof-of-work.

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0xJoshua told Motherboard that Rainbow Rolls considered several different charities before deciding to focus on medical debt. “We landed on healthcare because members of our core team, launch partners, and their family members struggled with medical debt problems,” he said. “This was personal for us, and it’s not a unique experience in America. Everyone knows someone who has been victimized by the American medical industrial complex.”

According to Rainbow Rolls, the toilet paper NFTs have generated about 100 ETH. A little more than 19ETH of that went to RIP Medical Debt. “We also gave 20.895 ETH to Gitcoin and 20.895 Giveth,” it said. “Gitcoin helps fund open source work through quadratic funding. Giveth helps charities accept crypto donations.”

Wiping out medical debt is good, but when it accepted an Ethereum donation, RIP Medical Debt stumbled into an ongoing culture war that’s playing out online. People overwhelmingly hate NFTs for a lot of complicated reasons. Stargarden responded to some, but not all of them, in this Twitter thread.

0xJoshua was surprised at first that people were angry. “Then I realized it wasn’t about Rainbow Rolls and it wasn’t about RIPMD,” he said. “We think maybe this is part of a larger and coordinated effort to discredit blockchain technology. It’s a natural reaction for people to unionize and defend their cultural turf… it was a little rough that these critics didn’t seem to understand the satire; or that we were making fun of bad actors in the NFT space.”

Rainbow Rolls plans to continue minting toilet paper NFTs for charity. “We are proud of the amount of the grants we funded and the debt we alleviated during our first experiment with this project. The debt we helped wipe away helped people,” 0xJoshua said. “We aren’t going to play whack-a-mole with every fringe claim about the Web3 ecosystem. We are going to stay focused on raising money for Public Goods.”

For those on one side of the NFT culture war, there’s no room for debate. Every NFT is a sign of something more disgusting than a cartoon ape or toilet paper roll, even if it’s ostensibly satire that’s also trying to do some good—it’s about the financialization and ownership of infinitely-copyable information, and turning everything in the world into a casino.