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June 27, 2024

The Story Behind the Creation of the Recycling Logo, One of the Most Recognizable Logos of All Time

In 1970, when Anderson was 23 years old and a student at the University of Southern California, the Container Corporation of America (CCA) released a poster that was widely distributed to colleges and universities in the United States. Under the direction of Walter Paepcke, the CCA had established itself as a leader in corporate graphics and design. The poster advertised a competition to design a graphic symbol which would be used on recycled paper products and which could recognize a commitment to environmental sensitivity on the part of any manufacture who was engaged in recycling. The winning symbol would be given over to the public domain. The competition was also to honor the first Earth Day, which was held that same year on April 22.

Gary Anderson with his recycle symbol and the Container Corporation’s Hans Buehler in 1970.

Anderson designed a symbol and submitted three variations of it to the competition. The alternatives actually represented Anderson’s stepwise refinement of a basic idea involving three arrows – from a more elaborate design utilizing different tones and the word “recycle,” to a simple black and white line drawing with no wording. Anderson has stated that it only took him a “day or two” to come up with the design. The arrows were planar, suggesting strips of paper, but they curved and bent back upon themselves as though captured in the midst of an industrial manufacturing process, and the three arrows taken together as a continuous band formed the topological figure known as a Möbius strip.

“It didn’t take me long to come up with my design: a day or two. I almost hate to admit that now,” Anderson recalled. “But I’d already done a presentation on recycling waste water 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.”

The 500 entries to the competition were judged by designers recognized as world leaders in graphics and industrial art, including Saul Bass, Herbert Bayer, James Miho, Herbert Pinzke and Eliot Noyes. The award was announced at the International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA) under the auspices of the Aspen Institute. Anderson received a fellowship to attend the Conference, along with a $2,000 prize.

Anderson has said that his academic experiences and the spirit of the times were primary determinates of his design; but that violence stemming from the drug-infused political radicalization of the youth movement led him to strive for a graphic approach that, while acknowledging the fluid mysticism of underground psychedelic art associated with Haight-Ashbury, reflected restraint and balance, as well.

A simplified version of this graphic, created by Gary Anderson, was selected as the winner of a contest seeking designs for a recycling symbol at the 1970 International Design Conference at Aspen. The symbol would become one of the most recognizable graphics in the world.

Anderson admitted that he did not recognize the importance of his recycling design until he noticed it on a recycling bin while in Amsterdam. At the time of designing the logo, he was not even a graphic designer, he was pursuing architecture. He would go on to state that it only took him “a day or two” to come up with the design. Anderson on to write that he made the logo by drawing the design in pencil then would proceed to trace back over the design with black ink. He went on to state that he came up with the idea of the recycling logo while watching paper being “fed” to a printer. Anderson would go on to pursue a career in urban planning as a result of his architecture passion.

“I’ll never forget: when I walked off the plane, I saw my symbol,” Anderson added. “It was on a big, igloo-shaped recycling bin. And it was bigger than a beach ball! I was really struck. I hadn’t thought about that symbol for years and here it was hitting me in the face.”

He has also identified more specific but diverse influences that include a variation on a popular nursery rhyme, an elementary school field trip to an industrial printing press, the Woolmark symbol, and the graphic art of M. C. Escher, which at the time of the design competition had only recently become widely accessible in the United States.

Anderson used his $2,500 in prize money to study for a year at the University of Stockholm, Sweden, obtaining a diploma in social science from the Institute for English Speaking Students, a branch of the University which no longer exists. Returning from Sweden, Anderson was employed as a planner and architectural designer by Gruen Associates (formerly Victor Gruen Associates) in Los Angeles and David Jay Flood and Associates of Santa Monica, California, before moving east to accept a planning position at RTKL Associates in Baltimore. During his tenure there, he became a registered architect. Laid off from RTKL during a recession in the mid 1970s, Anderson found work in the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Department of Community Development, and then in the Office of University Planning at the University of Maryland.

Flash forward to today, and Gary’s chasing arrows have become a globally recognized symbol for recycling. If you see those arrows, you know that the item that you’re holding is either recyclable or made of recycled materials.


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