Recycling Symbol

History of the Recycling Symbol

The recycling symbol designated by the three chasing arrows in the triangular format was designed in 1970 as part of a contest sponsored by the Container Corporation of America (CCA). CCA, now Jefferson Smurfit Corporation, had been and still remains a major producer of recycled paperboard and heavily involved in waste paper collection. In the late 1960's, the company identified a marketing opportunity to promote the benefits of its products in response to the emerging environmental consciousness taking hold in America.

As a special event for the original Earth Day in 1970, CCA conducted a contest for graphic art students to design a symbol representing paper recycling. The contest was conceived by the company's manager of public relations, Anthony Marcin and manager of graphic design, William J. Lloyd. More than a thousand entries were submitted in the contest, which was judged at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in Aspen, Colorado. The winning entry was submitted by Gary Dean Anderson, a 5-year architecture student at the University of Southern California at Los Angels. Later that year, William Lloyd, modified the contest winning recycling symbol to create the present-day image.

Originally, two versions of the symbol were created to convey two different messages. Solid arrows within a black circle designated that the box or container was made from recycled paperboard. Another version, where the arrows appear in outline, meant that the box or container was recyclable.

CCA applied for registration of the symbol as a service mark, and for a nominal fee, licensed its use to other recycled paperboard manufacturers and to related industry associations. The symbol quickly became the centerpiece of an ongoing campaign to promote the use of recycled paperboard. A now-defunct New York environmental group challenged the service mark registration application on the basis that the symbol would create consumer confusion. CCA subsequently dropped the registration application and allowed the symbol to enter the public domain.

Today, the original symbol and the many versions it has inspired are used as generic recycling labels. Sometimes the three chasing arrows appear against a green background, stand alone without a circle, or show up reversed-out or upside down. Some versions of the symbol include words, codes, logos, or other symbols. The symbol alone does not imply any particular type or amount of recycled content. It is ironic, in hindsight, that the very problem feared from registering the symbol, consumer confusion, is now widespread because of the diversity of the symbol's use, appearance and meaning. Until or unless environmental claims are regulated, consumers must rely on the ethics of companies promoting their products as recycled or recyclable and then be prepared to ask questions.

As a final note, in 1976 William Lloyd founded Lloydesign Associates Inc. He died of cancer on October 18, 1998.