Recycle logo

Reduce, reuse, recycle: the iconic logo and symbol of hope

We look at the story behind the iconic recycling symbol, inspired by the Summer of Love.

Spinning arrows representing the cycle of life, an endless and ever-so-dynamic Mobius loop that will never be completed... This is the universal recycling symbol, one of the world’s most recognisable design logos. Staring at us from buildings, containers, bottles and food wrappings, it appears extremely familiar. Yet it is not common knowledge that, in the words of its creator, American designer Gary Anderson, then a student at the University of Southern California School of Architecture, it was inspired by the spirit of the 1960s and the 1967 Summer of Love.

“It didn’t take me long to come up with my design: a day or two,” he wrote in 2012. “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 problem with my earlier design was that it seemed flat, two-​dimensional... I thought back to a field trip in elementary school to a newspaper office where we’d seen how paper was fed over rollers as it was printed. I drew on that image – the three arrows in my final sketch look like strips of folded-over paper. I drew them in pencil, and then traced over everything in black ink.”

Anderson’s design won the first prize of $2,500 in the 1970 design competition, organised by a Chicago-based container company, CCA, to raise awareness about the environment. Over 500 entries had been submitted to the jury, which included the world’s leading industrial designers.

As a student, Anderson had been active in the youth movement, with its firm commitment to non-violence, pacifism and preservation of the environment. The very concept of industrial recycling was born on the university campuses of the 1960s USA, and was reflected – among other things – in Anderson’s laconic, yet thoroughly graphic and brilliantly expressive, logo. The symbol, which is not a trademark and until now remains in the public domain, has been reproduced in many countries and in countless variants, designating different types of recycling. There exist some satirical takes on it too.

According to a June 2017 issue of the Guardian newspaper: “The recycling logo, today recognisable worldwide, is a product of the [Summer of Love] era.” It is a fact that for many people Anderson’s creation has become associated with San Francisco’s Summer of Love of 1967 when the young people of California made their voices heard all over the world. 

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