When you go to a coffee shop and the barista writes your name on the cup, you're more likely to recycle it than if your name was misspelled or wasn't written on the cup at all.
That's just one of several interesting recycling behaviors marketing researchers recently uncovered. It turns out we have fascinating biases that help determine what we recycle and what we just toss in the trash.
When it comes to personalized cups, for example, we're more likely to recycle if there's what researchers call an "identity bias." That means if there is some part of ourselves associated with an item then we are more reticent to junk it and more likely to give it a second life.
Remi Trudel, an assistant professor of marketing at Questrom School of Business, Boston University, says he was first intrigued to study this identity bias when he visited a coffee shop and the barista spelled his name wrong on his cup. Realizing that writing names on cups has become a common way of linking coffee to a patron's identity, Trudel and other researchers decided to explore the connection.
They told several volunteers they were going to evaluate different types of juice. The participants' names were written on their juice cups and in some instances they were spelled correctly (Sarah, Paul, Ashley) and sometimes they were deliberately misspelled (Saruh, Pawl, Ashlee). The researchers found that the volunteers whose names were spelled correctly were much more likely to recycle their cups than those whose names were spelled wrong.
The researchers conducted several other similar experiments that linked identity to recycling. They offered volunteers products, for example, that had personalized connections, such as American flags or university logos. They found that people were much more likely to recycle those products with which they had some type of identity.
"We consistently found that people are more likely to recycle than discard identity-linked products — and that trashing these products can lower self-esteem," Trudel writes in the Harvard Business Review. "As might be expected, it feels bad to throw a piece of yourself in the trash, so people avoid it."
The researchers published the results of their study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Shape shifting and recycling
The same researchers earlier looked at how the change in a product's shape or size might impact whether someone decides to recycle it or throw it away.
They started by taking a peek into the garbage cans and recycling bins in 22 academic offices. They found that whole pieces of paper were typically recycled while paper fragments were usually thrown away.
They found the same thing with aluminum cans. Whole, untouched cans were tossed in the recycling bin while crushed or dented cans were usually thrown away. Their study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Why would a change in shape matter?
"When an item is sufficiently distorted or changed in size or form, people perceive it as useless — as something without a future," Trudel writes. "So they throw it in the trash."
The researchers believe there's a practical, sustainable application to this knowledge.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 67 percent of paper, 55 percent of aluminum soda and beer cans and 34 percent of glass containers are recycled. Perhaps if people are made aware of their behaviors, then cups without names, dented cans and scraps of paper will skip the trash and get recycled instead.