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The Benefits of Forging a Personal Connection With That Paper Cup

Researchers studying recycling habits find we are reluctant to trash a disposable item if it reflects some aspect of our personal identity.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Did you stop at Starbucks on your way to work this morning? If so, when you finished your latte, did you throw away the cup, or recycle it?

The answer may turn on the spelling ability of the barista who scribbled your name on it.

That’s one of the fascinating findings of a newly published study that reveals a previously unknown, presumably unconscious reason we choose to recycle certain disposable products. It reports that the more we associate such an item with our personal identity — as when our name is accurately scrawled across it — the more likely we are to drop it in the recycling bin.

“Placing an identity-linked product in the trash is symbolically similar to trashing a part of the self,” writes a research team led by Remi Trudel of Boston University. Its study shows that, to avoid the resultant emotional discomfort, consumers are more likely to recycle such products.

The research, which suggests an intriguing new approach to getting people to recycle, is published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Trudel and his colleagues describe seven studies that provide evidence of this dynamic.

It’s surprising how little it takes to get people to identify with a throwaway object.

The first featured 206 undergraduates at a large American university who gathered at the laboratory ostensibly to test a pen. Half of them wrote their first name five times on a piece of paper, while the other half wrote the name “Avery.”

After evaluating the writing utensil, they were asked to “dispose of your paper on the way out.” A trash can and a recycling bin were placed outside the lab’s door.

Thirty-six percent of those who wrote their own name recycled the paper, compared to 23 percent who scribbled a different name.

The second study featured the aforementioned coffee cup test. It featured 164 undergraduates who were provided with “a small paper cup, under the guise of participating in a sampling study.”

One-third were given a blank cup; another third were handed a cup with their correctly spelled name written on the side; and a final third were given a cup on which their name was spelled incorrectly.

After sampling water from several sources, participants were asked to dispose of the cup on their way out of the lab. Forty-eight percent of the cups labeled with correctly spelled names were recycled compared to 24 percent of those with misspelled names and 26 percent of those left blank.

Additional studies found the intensity with which one identifies with a product or nation directly impacted how likely people were to recycle a soda can or a plastic cup decorated with an American flag logo.

These findings have practical implications for the effort to get people to recycle. As Trudel and his colleagues show, it’s surprising how little it takes to get people to identify with a throwaway object.

They note that Budweiser periodically releases limited-edition bottles picturing the American flag or the Statue of Liberty. Beer drinkers who identify strongly as patriotic Americans will presumably be more likely to recycle such containers. Cans with sports-team logos would likely have a similar effect on die-hard fans.

Skeptical that this effect is real? Well, the next time you’re at Starbucks, make sure the person taking your drink order knows how to spell your name. Then take note of where your cup ends up.