Arguably one of the most famous symbols on the planet, the recycle logo has an interesting history.

So You Think You Know LogosThe triple arrowed logo has become the ubiquitous symbol for recycling around the world, but did you know the design originally started as a money-making idea for a Chicago-based packaging company? Or that the logo was created as part of a design contest to mark the first official Earth Day? Odd that we know so little about one of the most famous logos on the planet. Right up there with Coca Cola, Nike and Apple, and I would imagine there’s very few who don’t instantly recognize the three pointy arrows of the recycling logo. Anyone who’s ever designed packaging in the last twenty years or so has probably placed the mark on artwork, and there’s probably quite a few of you that spent a few hours hunting down a decent vector version of the symbol, as the clock clicked down to press time. I know I got caught out a few times (there’s now entire websites dedicated to making pristine vector and CAD versions available to designers). Many may not be too familiar with the recycling logo’s interesting history (I wasn’t) so as part of our So You Think You Know Logos? series, we’ll take a trip down memory together.


Earth Day.

April of 1970 marked the first official Earth Day (which would go on to be an annual event, marked by tens of millions each year) and marked the beginning of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It also inspired a smallish Chicago-based company, Container Corporation of America, to create a logo for their then revolutionary recycled cardboard boxes. The graphic designer at CCA, Bill Loyd, decided to hold a logo design contest, advertising it through high schools and colleges. While Loyd was after a symbol to print on CCA’s products, he also had a bigger vision, figuring the logo could represent the fledgling recycling movement. The aim of the contest wasn’t completely altruistic, as CCA planned to allow other manufacturers, who were also using recycled cardboard and paper, to use the mark for a small fee. To encourage entries, the contest featured a sizable first prize: a scholarship to the winner’s choice of colleges and a $2,500 cash bonus. A chance to win inspired more than 500 logo design entries from across the US.

Connections to Möbius.

The winner of the contest was Gary Anderson, then a 23-year-old graphic designer and graduate student from the University of Southern California. Anderson’s concept for the now famous logo came from 19th century mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius, mobius-strip-recycle-logoa name most of us will recognize when we talk about a Möbius strip (right photo: David Benbennick), a strip of paper that when twisted into itself and joined at both ends forms an infinite loop (oddly, while a Mobius strip does resemble the infinity symbol, there’s no correlation between the two). While Anderson is credited with the design in total, Lloyd had a slight hand in the final version, rotating the arrows so that the inside negative space of the logo resembled a pine tree.

recycle-logo-designerWhen it came to licensing the recycling logo, CCA’s trademark application was held up for review, but rather than battle over a mark that had a default positive message, the company dropped their appeal, letting the design slide into the public domain. Since then, the three arrows have come to represent the three tenets of the environmental movement and conservatism: Reuse, Reduce, Recycle. Anyone can use the logo on packaging, but that use is strictly enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. Bottom line – if you use the recycling logo, and your stuff ain’t recycled or recyclable, you’re in a world of hurt with the Feds.

Recycling logo variants.

While there are also a few international variants (Taiwan uses a square version for example) there are two general versions of the recycling logo in use today. If the arrows are inside a solid black circle, it means the product is made from previously recycled material (the number in the center of the logo tells us what percentage. An absence of a number indicates 100%). If the arrows are not inside a circle, that indicates the product is recyclable.

And the designer of the Recycle logo? Gary Anderson received his Ph.D. in geography and environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 1985, became an architect and has spent the majority of his career as an urban planner with a focus on controlled growth.

He remains active in the green movement to this day.

Vector version download.

As the logo is in the public domain, stock sites really shouldn’t be selling it and we just happened to have pristine versions of the symbol lying around, here’s a free PDF that features vector versions of the recycle logo. Enjoy.