Trash or Recycle?

Q&A with Remi Trudel

Remi Trudel, Questrom assistant professor of marketing, found that you’re more likely to recycle a coffee cup with your name on it because it’s “identity-linked.” Photos by Jackie Ricciardi

Remi Trudel used to get annoyed when he saw people throwing items into the wastebasket—gum wrappers, soda cans—that they should have tossed into the recycling bin. Then he got curious.

Trudel, a Boston University Questrom School of Business assistant professor of marketing, studies consumer decision making, and he wanted to find out why people recycle—or why they don’t. He started looking for patterns in unusual places, like his colleagues’ trash, forming hypotheses and designing experiments to test them. He discovered that the decision to recycle isn’t just based on convenience or personal belief. Rather, it reflects complex, subtle biases that we all seem to harbor.

BU Research spoke to Trudel about why you’re more likely to trash a crumpled sheet of paper but recycle a cup with your name on it. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

BU Research: Why did you decide to look at the psychology of recycling?

Trudel: We really don’t know anything about how and why people dispose of products the way they do. We know the steps that people go through to buy products, and how to influence people all the way along the path, but then we stop when people buy products. But while we know very little about how people get rid of products, we do know that they are inconsistent in their behavior. Why is it that, in one instance, you might recycle a piece of paper, and in another instance you don’t? I was fascinated by these inconsistencies and got really interested in uncovering the psychology driving the behavior. I wanted to understand what was causing people to be biased in their disposal behavior.

How did you decide which biases to study?

I just observed different things. Then I started going through people’s garbage in the office.

Did you ask them first?

No, I didn’t tell them. If I told them, then they’d change their behavior. So we waited until everyone left the office and went through their recycling and trash and recorded what we found.

Remi Trudel holding a coffee cup
Trash or recycle?

Did you see a pattern?

Yes! We noticed that bigger pieces of paper were getting recycled and small pieces of paper that were either cut, torn, or crumpled were getting tossed. And so I ran some experiments based on what we observed in people’s trash to try to better understand what was going on.

What did you suspect?

At first, I thought it was just the size of the paper that led to the differences in behavior. We’re so used to throwing small pieces of paper like gum wrappers in the trash that maybe we have this mental schema and that’s just where small pieces of paper belong. But then we started running experiments and realized that there was much more going on. We started with designing experiments where we would give people a full-size sheet of paper and then get them to cut it in eight pieces. What we observed was that after our participants cut the paper, they were more likely to trash it. After several more experiments, we were able to figure out what was driving this behavior. Future usefulness is an important characteristic of recyclables. When things—products—are distorted and deviate from their prototypical form, they’re perceived to be less useful, and useless things get thrown in the trash.

We confirmed this by running some additional experiments. For instance, we had participants cut paper as we had done in earlier experiments. For half the subjects, the control group, we did nothing. The majority of them tossed the small pieces of paper in the trash. For the other group, we had them write down uses for those little pieces of paper. And so they wrote things like, “I could use it as a bookmark,” “I could make an airplane,” “I could use it for notes,” “I could make origami.” As soon as you made them think about how useful that piece of paper was, it was more likely to get thrown in the recycling, regardless of size.

Where did your research go from there?

I started thinking about other things that might influence whether we’re trashing or not. And, sure enough, I go to Starbucks and I order my latte, and they spell my name wrong. Remi often gets spelled wrong. I think this time, it was like R-e-m-m-y. And so I looked at it and I was a little bit miffed. But then I started thinking: might this influence disposal behavior?

So we ran an experiment where we did exactly that. People came in to sample juice, and we put their names on the cups. We asked them their names, and in one condition we asked them to spell it out so we made sure we had it right, and in the other condition we intentionally spelled their names wrong. And sure enough, you’re far more likely to recycle something if your name is on it correctly than when it’s spelled wrong or when there’s no name on it. After a series of other studies, we could confidently say that this change in disposal behavior was due to linking consumers’ identity to the product. Throwing an “identity-linked” product in the trash is like throwing a piece of yourself in the trash.

How could a business use this information to encourage recycling?

It depends a lot on the business. I think the biggest implication of this research so far is in the design of packaging. Companies need to design packages that are easily opened and less likely to be torn apart. If you think of packaging for kids’ toys, you just tear it to heck to get at the toy. And the more you tear the packaging—make it smaller and less useful—the less likely it’s going to end up in the recycle bin.

We all have these kinds of disposal rituals. You can imagine finishing your burger, and you grab the wrapper and then you scrunch it up. Well, that right there has just determined the fate of that wrapper. And so, again, if you could design packages that change consumers’ disposal rituals, then I think you can develop interventions that might change people’s behavior, without them having to be an active participant in it.

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5 comments

  1. Waste management is a tricky business, and it is incumbent upon people who care about recycling to educate themselves and others about the proper sorting procedures where they live. While I find Dr. Trudel’s research to be interesting and valuable, some of the examples he gives here are misinformed.

    Plasticized paper (like the ubiquitous polyethylene-lined coffee cups), waxed paper, and foil paper (like many gum wrappers, burger wrappers, etc) are not recyclable in Boston; unfortunately only a handful of municipalities around the nation have the capability to recycle these problematic materials. Any grease-saturated paper (presumably most burger wrappers, even if they are not foil paper) should also be discarded in the trash, as lipids contaminate the pulping process in paper recycling. Very small pieces of paper are difficult to manage in recycling sorting facilities and should only be recycled in aggregate, e.g. bagged together in a paper bag.

    We can recycle plastic coffee cup tops and cardboard sleeves, but those coffee cups should go in the trash, even if they spelled your name right. Admittedly, it can be difficult to keep these things straight; the rules vary from town to town, and they change from time to time. That said, the information is readily available online, and I encourage anyone who cares to stay informed and to inform others. When in doubt, it is certainly better to err on the side of recycling. Sorting facilities attempt to remove contaminants from the recycling stream, whereas nobody screens the trash for recyclables.

    1. What you are implying, then, is that we need consistent rules across the country. And I completely agree– in MA, some towns recycle aluminum’ others don’t. Some DO recycle cardboard cups, others don’t, etc.MIT is VERY confusing. No wonder people opt for the easy answer– just throw it in the trash.

  2. Another thing to consider is this. I have encountered evangelicals who believe that it is pointless to recycle or even practice energy conservation because god will take care of everything so no need to worry. I am not making this up I promise.

    1. I’ve been told it is because the believers will be caught up & saved when the Rapture happens. Then, they will start thrashing their heaven, right?

  3. When I lived in a progressive blue state, I got hooked on recycling. We knew & abided the guidelines. It was great!! Then, we move back home to the Deep South. The house we bought had enormous shower doors that had to go. Of course, we were going to recycle them. I filled the van with everything recyclable–flattened moving boxes, newspapers, plastics, glass, aluminum, etc. The van was packed to the max! We drive to the recycling place on a Saturday morning. It is closed! We go to the nearby “dump” to find out why. The employee there said that it’s only open for 2 hours every Wednesday afternoon!!! How can that be?? He said that until the local government got behind recycling, it was never going to change. This state is extremely red & is sinking into the gulf. We paid $25 to unload our recyclables at the dump. I felt physical pain while doing this!! I still do. Everytime I bring the garbage to the curb. It hurts. When I shop, packaging makes a difference. I pass on stupid packaging.

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