The Theft of the Recycle Symbol

The theft of the recycle symbol

There’s hardly a more ubiquitous design than the recycling symbol, an image that is instantly recognized worldwide on millions of packages and containers. As far as recognizability, it is on par with Nike, Mcdonald’s, and Apple. 

But the story of this symbol has strayed alarmingly since its inception. What was once an innocent attempt to raise awareness about recycling has been hijacked and transformed into a sorting and labeling system by the plastics industry that has all but eliminated the symbol’s original intent. 

In this post, we will explore the history behind this everyday symbol, and how its story went awry. 

History of the Recycle Symbol

Increased awareness around environmental issues led to the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. As part of this inaugural celebration, a national logo competition was presented by Container Corporation of America which was, at the time, one of the leading producers of recycled packaging materials in the country. The company’s founder took a keen interest in progressive design trends, and this attention to branding detail quickly put the company at the front of the pack. 

Enter Gary Anderson. At the time, Anderson was only 23 years old, pursuing a degree in architecture at the University of Southern California. Though he wasn’t a design major, he decided to give the logo competition a shot after being inspired at an environmental rally. 

In “Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images,” Anderson remembers that his generation was just starting to realize that the Earth’s resources weren’t infinite. This concept of infinity would greatly inspire his logo design.

Anderson used the Mobius Loop as the inspiration for his design. A Mobius loop, or strip, was a mathematical discovery made in the late 1800s. The gist is that it represents mathematical continuity and connection. 

Anderson later wrote that “It didn’t take me long to come up with my design: a day or two. I almost hate to admit that now. But I’d already done a presentation on recycling wastewater and I’d come up with a graphic that described the flow of water: from reservoirs through to consumption, so I already had arrows and arcs and angles in my mind.” 

His original sketch featured three arrows folding in on each other. It was meant to represent “both the dynamic (things are changing) and the static (it’s a static equilibrium, a permanent kind of thing).”

Anderson’s design was selected as the winner out of 500 entries at the International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA). He was awarded $2,500 toward his studies for the winning entry.

Recycle Symbol Dieline

Source: Dieline

How the Plastics Industry Hijacked the Recycle Symbol

Container Corporation of America (CCA), the host of the event, then implemented the symbol on their recyclable products and began lobbying other companies to do the same. They were so successful at this endeavor that the logo soon became public domain, which means it could no longer be trademarked. 

Essentially, this was the beginning of the end for the symbol. As a part of the public domain, any entity could take the design and manipulate it for their own purposes. 

Fast forward to 1988. The Society of Plastics Institute developed a resin identification coding system to identify and label different types of plastic manufactured by a company. Though the system provided a nice, clear way of labeling, it began a dangerous downward slide of misinformation. 

The issue was that a product could have the recycle symbol with a number inside of it even if that material is not actually recyclable. 

Due to a lack of clear education about the types of plastics and whether they are recyclable or not, the efficacy of this system is very low. Less than 9% of plastic manufactured each year is recycled. The rest usually ends up in landfills.

Compare this stat with Germany, the world’s leader in recycling, with a 56% recycling rate of all materials the country produces.

Plastic Resin Identification Codes

Source: Blue Line Labels 


The story of the recycle symbol starts out with so much hope and purpose and morphs into a story of misrepresentation with dire consequences. It’s time for the plastics industry, the EPA, and the federal government to head back to the drawing board, perhaps literally, to see how the United States’ recycling efforts can be augmented. 

And for designers, this story can serve as a cautionary tale. Securing the legal protection of your designs is a crucial step in the lifeline of your work. We know how good design can literally change the world for the better, we just have to make sure we let it do so. 

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