As you celebrate America
Recycles Day each year in November,
and Earth Day in April, look around and notice how many times
you see the recycling symbol displayed. With its twisting arrows
design, this symbol is recognized worldwide as the designation
for recycled and recyclable materials. It easily has the recognition
factor of Coca-Cola, Nike, and McDonald's, but do you have any
idea where it came from, or who actually designed` it?
THE STORY BEHIND THE RECYCLING SYMBOL
Because the recycling symbol is so familiar and ubiquitous, we
tend to take it for granted, not realizing that it was designed
by a real live, honest-to-goodness person who, even today, is
still concerned with the environment.
Here's the little-known story behind
the recycling symbol:
In April 1970, the very first Earth Day was held,
coinciding with an emerging environmental consciousness as the
environmental movement began to gain momentum.
person who participated in this first Earth Day was a student
at the University of Southern California named Gary Dean Anderson,
who designed the recycling symbol later that same year. Like
thousands of other college students across the country, Anderson
attended an Earth Day rally and environmental teach-in at his
university, which was held outdoors on a beautiful day with lots
of rock music and a mellow atmosphere.
Still, Anderson says there was "definitely
something in the air, in the academic community and elsewhere,
that was beginning to color everyone's image of the earth and
its resources. Neither, people were beginning to realize, was
infinite." This awareness of the earth's finite resources
and the need to conserve and renew them for future generations
continues each year as we celebrate Earth Day.
Also that spring in 1970, Container
Corporation of America, a paperboard
company, sponsored a nationwide contest for environmentally-concerned
art and design students to create a design that would symbolize
the paper recycling process.
The new recycling symbol was to be used
to identify packages made from recycled and recyclable fibers,
and to call attention to paper recycling as an effective method
of conservation of our natural resources. CCA sought to promote
greater awareness of the recyclable nature of paper fibers, and
to emphasize the contribution of recycling to improving environmental
At that time, CCA (now Smurfit-Stone
Container Corporation) was the largest
user of recycled fiber in the U.S., and easily could have had
its own corporate designers come up with the symbol, but decided
that the younger generation of students, as inheritors of the
earth, would be the best source for the new design.
More than 500 talented students submitted
their entries, which were judged by a distinguished panel of
judges at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado.
The theme of the conference was "Environment by Design".
The first place winner was Gary
Dean Anderson, a graduate student at the University of Southern
California in Los Angeles. The second prize winner was Mike Norcia
of New York, and third prize went to Janet McElmurry of the University
of Georgia. There were also twenty Awards of Excellence presented.
Gary Anderson had just graduated from
USC's 5-year architecture program, and was completing one additional
year for a master's of urban design. His prize for the winning
entry was a $2,500 tuition grant for further study at any college
or university in the world. After receiving his master's degree
in urban design from USC, Anderson chose the University of Stockholm's
graduate program in social science for English-speaking students,
where he studied the relationship between social interaction
and physical space, and earned a diplom in social science
(roughly equivalent to a master's degree) there in 1972. He also
had the opportunity to learn the Swedish language through the
university's intensive instruction program for languages.
HOW GARY ANDERSON DESIGNED THE RECYCLING
Gary Anderson grew up in North Las Vegas, Nevada, in the 1950s.
In keeping with the times following the Great Depression and
World War II, his family practiced a general frugality that involved
re-using and recycling as much as possible, long before the recycling
movement as we know it today had begun. His family reused newspapers,
paper and plastic bags from the grocery store, and his father
either made or refinished and reupholstered much of the furniture
in their home.
As a child, this future architect built
everything from cottages to skyscrapers with his sets of plastic
American Bricks and wooden Lincoln Logs. Every Christmas, it
was his job to construct a stable out of his Lincoln Logs for
the Nativity Scene under his family's Christmas tree. He also
liked making all kinds of things out of paper - pinwheels, paper
airplanes, paper chains, you name it. An avid reader and library
user, he discovered origami in a book from his school library,
and did not stop until he had made every origami design in it
at least once.
He excelled at both math and English
in elementary school, but liked history and geography best. According
to Anderson, spelling was his worst subject in those early school
years. However, he especially enjoyed penmanship, which was taught
by the Palmer method, and his handwriting today still retains
the Palmer style. He liked the idea that even a complicated chain
of letters was really made up of just a few basic lines and curves,
each of which could be made with a simple stroke.
Later in his schooling, Gary Anderson
began to study foreign languages, art, graphic layout, and typography.
He did well in art all through school, but he noticed that there
were other students who were better at drawing realistically
and spontaneously. Some of them seemed to have "a bionic
connection between their eye and their hand that enabled
them to reproduce exactly what they saw." He adds that when
drawing by hand, "I've always had to develop my image with
many tentative lines drawn one on top of the other, until I get
something to look more-or-less as I want it. By the time I'm
finished, it kind of looks soft and furry or hairy, even when
the object isn't that way at all."
From a young age, Gary Anderson was
intrigued by the idea of the Möbius strip, the single-sided
construction formed by gluing together the ends of a strip of
paper that have been given a twist. The Möbius loop was
discovered in 1858 by August Ferdinand Möbius, a German
mathematician and astronomer. Anderson also enjoyed the art of
the Dutch artist M. C. Escher, who produced a series of drawings
based on the Möbius strip, one of which (above left) portrays
ants crawling over the folded and twisted strip of paper.
When Anderson began designing his three
entries for the contest, he drew upon the concept of the Möbius
strip as a combination of the finite and the infinite, "a
finite object, but its one surface is infinite in a way."
He also tried to incorporate the concept of ambiguity, since
the symbol is "kind of round, but also kind of angular.
It's flat, but it seems to enclose a space ... kind of hexagonal
and kind of triangular, and kind of circular ... sort of static
and sort of dynamic."
In his original design, which CCA modified
slightly to make it appear more stable, the symbol rested on
one of its short sides, implying a much more dynamic motion and
instability than the versions we see today.
Anderson drew the symbol entirely by
hand with pen and ink, without the benefit of the computer-aided
design software available to designers these days. In those days,
computer graphics was a very new field, largely experimental,
and computer-aided drafting and design (CADD) was only in the
developmental stages. And of course, no one had personal computers
either, and the computer classes offered in college were all
taught using mainframe computers and punch cards.
Graphic design at this point was essentially
limited to arrangements of different combinations of alphanumeric
characters distributed across a tractor-fed page. Anderson says
that, "If we were writing a program - and you had
to write a program to create a computer generated image - you
had to leave a stack of punched cards off at the computer center
at night, and pick up the output the following day. Every time
you did this, you hoped you had finally gotten all the bugs out
of your program, and that what you got back from the computer
center was what you actually wanted."
design process for the recycling symbol went quickly for Anderson,
especially since he had been mulling over this type of image
for some time, and had experimented with several different configurations
for class projects in architecture school. He worked out his
clean and simple series of designs over a period of only two
to three days. Looking back, he feels that his designs were influenced
not only by M. C. Escher's art and the Möbius strip, but
also by the wool symbol, reminiscent of spinning fibers, and
the concept of the mandala as a symbol of the universe in the
Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
The one (and only) sketch of his recycling
symbol that survives (shown above) is the most complicated of
the three designs Anderson submitted for the contest. This working
sketch of the recycling symbol design appears in a letter home
from college to his mother. Note that this design is resting
on one of the arrows, in contrast to the version modified by
CCA. The design picked by the judges as the winner was the simplest
and plainest of the three, with no words or shading on it, and
his third entry was something in between. Container Corporation
of America did not trademark the symbol, thus leaving it in the
public domain. For this reason, many permutations of the original
design have been developed over the years for a wide range of
Interestingly, it took a number of years
for the recycling symbol to catch on and become widely used in
the United States and elsewhere. In fact, Gary Anderson had seen
it only rarely before seeing it prominently displayed on recycling
bins in Amsterdam while travelling in Europe some ten years after
he had won the contest.
GARY ANDERSON'S LIFE TODAY
More than thirty years later, Anderson is still involved with
environmental issues. As the winner of the recycling symbol contest,
he could easily have pursued a career in graphics design, but
his career goal remained urban planning and design. Over the
years, he has been employed in various capacities as an architect
and planner, and has won numerous academic and professional awards
for his projects. He has authored many professional reports,
technical reports, and conference papers.
After receiving his doctorate in geography
and environmental engineering from The Johns Hopkins University
in 1985, he joined the firm of STV
Inc. in Baltimore, Maryland, where
he served as Vice President and Technical Manager of the twelve-member
In March 2004, after 18 years at STV
Inc., Gary Anderson took a position as vice president at TEC
Inc. (The Environmental Company) in Annapolis, Maryland. TEC
Inc. provides architect/engineering environmental consulting
to public and private sector clients.
A self-described "dreamer, doodler,
and putterer," Gary Anderson is also goal-oriented, enabling
him to move ahead and complete real projects. He enjoys his frequent
travels abroad for his work, having had planning projects in England, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and
Turkey, where he often teams up with local companies to work
on joint projects. Over the years, he has been a guest lecturer
at workshops and seminars in Turkey and Italy, and has authored
numerous professional technical reports and conference papers.
In addition, he has taught architecture
and planning courses in Saudi Arabia, and currently teaches a
course at The Johns Hopkins University. He is active in his local
civic and neighborhood improvement associations, and is a member
of several Baltimore museums. He sits on the board of directors
of 1,000 Friends
of Maryland, a managed-growth advocacy