The Man Behind the Ubiquitous Recycling Symbol

The man behind the well-known recycling logo was a 23-year-old engineering student when he created the design in 1970.

This logo, created in 1970 by a University of Southern California engineering student, is now used worldwide to communicate paper recycling.

This logo, created in 1970 by a University of Southern California engineering student, is now used worldwide to communicate paper recycling.

What started as a submission in a national contest to symbolize the paper-recycling process has morphed into one of the world’s most recognizable designs.

The ubiquitous symbol for recycling is now affixed to product packaging, containers, and virtually anything else made of recyclable materials. Some might even say it has taken on a far greater meaning, communicating in one simple series of arrows the environmental movement itself.

The man behind the symbol, Gary Dean Anderson, was at the time a 23-year-old engineering student at the University of Southern California.

A few months before literally putting pen to paper to create his three-arrow design — inspired by the Mobius strip that can be created by taking a paper strip and giving it a half-twist and then joining the ends together to form a loop — Anderson had attended an Earth Day rally and environmental teach-in at his university in April 1970.

At about the same time, the Container Corp. of America had announced a national competition seeking a symbol that would communicate the paper-recycling process.

In an interview with Financial Times Magazine, Anderson said that it took him only a day or two to devise his design. He said he had completed a presentation on recycling wastewater and arrows, arcs, and angles already were in his mind.  

Out of more than 500 entries, the Chicago-based company chose Anderson’s design. He took home about $2,000 and the logo entered the public domain.

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