Designing a Reuse Symbol and the Challenge of Recycling’s Legacy

Gary Anderson (right) and his 1970 design for the universal recycle symbol.

By Max Liboiron

The “universal” recycling symbol was designed in 1970 for a competition during America’s first Earth Day. A large producer of recycled paperboard, the Container Corporation of America, sponsored the competition. The winner was Gary Anderson, an urban design student in California, who said that he designed the symbol as a Mobius strip,

“to symbolize continuity within a finite entity. I used the [logo’s] arrows to give directionality to the symbol. I envisioned it with the small edge or the point of the triangle at the bottom. I wanted to suggest both the dynamic (things are changing) and the static (it’s a static equilibrium, a permanent kind of thing). The arrows, as broad as they are, draw back to the static side” (Jones, 2).

The Mobius strip is a structure whose single surface is made continuous by twisting a flat surface once and joining the ends, and was formally articulated in the 19th century by German mathematician August Mobius. The rhetoric of sustainability that Anderson finds embodied in the Mobius strip is already linked to environmentalism when Anderson designed the recycling symbol.

Recycling’s long history is well documented in books such as Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want (2000) or Charles Lipsett’s 100 years of Recycling History (1974), but it is only around the 1960’s that recycling becomes linked to environmental aims (before this, recycling is considered mainly in economic and material terms). Recycling’s status as an effective cure for environmental crisis is reflected in Anderson’s graphic insistence on the stable aspects of an otherwise transformative process (“the arrows, as broad as they are, draw back to the static side”), and is further reinforced by the Container Corporation of America’s rotation of the original design so that a flat edge of the triangle becomes the solid base of the triangle. In 1970, recycling was seen as an exciting “new” way to address rising concerns about the environment and stabilize aspects of resource use, though it has not met that promise.

After Earth Day, the Container Corporation of America tried to register the recycling symbol. A New York environmental group challenged them on the grounds that copywriting the symbol after its promotion during Earth Day, would be confusing for consumers. After this, the symbol fell into the public domain. Currently, there is no legal or scientific definition of recycled material, nor is there any standardization for the design or use of the recycling symbol. Ironically, the confusion feared by the New York environmental group is now a result of the symbol’s free use. Besides the additional designs made by the CCA, symbols exists for aluminum, glass, motor oil, and steel, and have equivalents in different languages around the world. Most confusingly, the three arrows with a number inside of them on the bottom of most plastics is a resin identifier and has nothing to do with recyclability or recycled content whatsoever. As a result of the use of the chasing arrows as a resin identifier, in 1994, “a task force of eleven state attorneys general … accused marketers of intentionally misleading consumers by using the code in advertisements and packages to convey an environmental benefit that doesn’t exist”. The International Organization for Standardization was invited to design a more descriptive symbol and set of acronyms to identify plastics with. That year, the members of the eleven state recycling coalition voted to replace the chasing arrows with a square and a different set of acronyms. Yet, almost 15 years later, the resin identifier has not changed; the vote was opposed by the plastics industry on the grounds that changing the machinery that stamped the symbol would cost too much money.

In short, symbols and their meanings are politically and culturally charged.

Today, there is another competition, this time launched by Earth911, a recycling directory that “helps consumers find local recycling information,” to design a symbol for reuse. They are offering $500 for the winning design.

“Submit a design from July 18 to August 22 (noon Pacific Time). The Earth911 design team will select designs that will pass to the voting round. From August 23 to September 6 (noon Pacific Time), we’ll open it up to public voting. Rally your colleagues and friends to get behind your effort and join the public in selecting the winner.”

With 28 days left in the competition, it is interesting to see that the submissions so far rely heavily on the legacy of the recycling symbol in their designs. It would seem that the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle, have become linked visually as well as rhetorically.

Screenshot from the competition website:

A submission to the Earth911 Reuse symbol design competition.

For many designers, the chasing arrows that make up the recycling symbol have been reshuffled to connote an even more closed loop system than recycling. In these designs, it would appear that reuse is just better recycling.

Yet, as I have written elsewhere, reuse and recycling have completely different politics.  They have different material flows, different economics, they occur at different scales, and affect communities in completely different ways. Reuse doesn’t offer a way to ship toxins overseas, or to build a polluting, industrial recycling plant. Because it does not include an industrial process, reuse uses different networks of distribution and value. In general, reuse occurs at a much, much smaller scale than recycling. And most importantly, reuse, unlike recycling, exits the throw away society made possible by made-to-break and other disposable goods. With one exception, these politics do not become apparent in any of the submitted symbols.

One submission indicates that interpersonal relationships are part of reuse, as the two figures in the symbol bounce abstract objects between them, bypassing the trash can. This submission is the only one that includes people rather than abstract arrows. This sort of symbol is in line with initiatives like the Fixers Collective and others of its kind that look to both fix objects, train people so they don’t have to participate in a throw away society, and build a community to support fixing and fixing skills at all the same time.

I would like to see a symbol developed from the tenants of reuse itself, much like Anderson’s thoughts on recycling that began with “continuity within a finite entity,” static versus non-static processes, and generally what recycling meant as a new technology that would revolutionize material flows in the 1970s. It is no longer the 1970s, and we now understand more about the social, economic and environmental failures of recycling. How is reuse different? How is it not just a “better” sort of recycling? How can we reflect those fundamental differences in designing a symbol?

Jones, Penny, and Jerry Powell. (1999) Gary Anderson Found! Resource Recycling.


Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.

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