How the recycling symbol was created

Gary Anderson designed a symbol which we see everywhere nowadays.


I studied engineering at the University of Southern California at a time when there was a lot of emphasis in the United States on training young people to be engineers. That said, I eventually switched to architecture. I just couldn’t get a grasp on electronics and architecture seemed more concrete to me.

It was around that time that I saw a poster advertising a design competition being run by the Container Corporation of America. The idea was to create a symbol to represent recycled paper. One of my college requirements had been a graphic design course so I thought I’d give it a go. It didn’t take me long to come up with my design: only a day or two. (37)……………  But I already had arrows and angles in my mind because on my course I’d done a presentation on recycling waste water. I’d come up with a graphic that described this process very simply.

The problem with the design I’d done earlier was that it seemed flat, two-dimensional. So when I sat down to enter the competition, I thought back to a field trip in elementary school to a newspaper office where we’d been shown how paper was fed over rollers as it was printed. (38)…………… The three arrows in it look like strips of folded-over paper. I drew them in pencil, and then traced over everything in black ink. These days, with computer graphics packages, it’s rare that designs are quite so plain.

I think I found out I’d won the competition in a letter. Was I excited? Well, yes of course – but not that excited. (39)…………… So it just seemed like, of course I would win! There was a monetary prize, though for the life of me I can’t remember how much it was… about $2,000?

When I finished my studies, I decided to go into urban planning and I moved to Los Angeles. It seems funny, but I really played down the fact that I’d won this competition. I was afraid it would make me look as though I was interested in graphics, rather than urban planning. (40)…………… I remember seeing it once on a leaflet which had been produced on recycled paper, but then it disappeared.

A while after graduating, I flew to Amsterdam for a holiday. I’ll never forget: when I walked off the plane, I saw my symbol. It was on a big recycling bin. And it was bigger than a beach ball! (41)…………… I was really taken aback. That was quite a long time ago though. Since then, I’ve got more qualifications and worked for quite a few different firms, some more environmentally aware than others.

I feel much prouder of the recycling symbol now than I used to, probably because it’s so widely seen. Maybe this design has been more important to me than I’d thought. (42)……………  There’s more to me than the recycling symbol.